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Nyang Shwe to Kalaw by train

Having visited the Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung Monastery we made our way towards the train station located at Shwenyaung. Our train was due to leave at 8 but from what Zar Zar had told us – could be a bit later kind of depends on how many passengers. Sounded somewhat like the lovely GWR back at home!

To buy a ticket for the train ordinarily you need to turn up on the day of travel and for this particular train be at the station at like 7am. We were all rather glad that Zar Zar knew the station manager and arranged to have the tickets saved for us for this trip and that she would pay for them on arrival at the station. I’m not even sure that I saw a ticket office as we walked through the station and boarded the train. The journey was going to take around 3 1/2 hours, I loved the vagueness and explanation that it depended entirely on how much produce needed to be loaded on at one of the stops as to whether we would be much longer or not. (Produce from the local area was loaded on to this train whose final destination was one of the big cities and so it would be sold there). Our seats were all in the Upper Class category, for which we were very thankful. This meant that we each had our own allocated seat which, interestingly, could be swiveled and set in either a forward or backward facing direction for the journey.the springs in many of them were busted and even the fixings to the floor were loose on some so some of us had a more eventful journey than others. I was glad that I had taken my neck support for the plane with me to help reduce some of the jolts on my neck. One of the group was opposite a guy who was making the full journey from start to finish in Yangon which was something absurd like a possible 26 hours (I’ll need to double check that with Zar Zar though. He was certainly not very Burmese looking and it felt more like we were in Mexico with his leather jacket and numerous bags. He was noting but polite none the less and helped Sue to open the window by her which was closed meaning she wouldn’t see the view. Our bags were on route to Kalaw by the coach which would meet us the other end. To some the train journey seemed pointless as the bus was going that way and in a shorter time but I enjoyed the experience, certainly very different to train travel in the UK!!

The ‘air-con’ did make us all giggle a bit as it would have done very little to keep anyone cool and certainly didn’t look like it had been turned on in donkeys years!!

We thankfully did manage to leave on time, much to everyone’s surprise and delight and with a backwards facing window seat I was in a prime position to be able to snap away as we passed through rural Myanmar slowly climbing upwards to our final destination of the hill station of Kalaw.


 

The scenery was beautiful and I found it fascinating watching the colour of the earth change as we passed through the countryside. It was revolting the amount of rubbish that was lying on or near the tracks it must be said, mainly looked like plastic waste – another apt reminder of the urgent need to reduce single use non bio-degradable plastics.

Our first stop was not one that we could disembark at and as a result I didn’t get the name of it. There were several ladies selling treats at the windows of local delicacies. This lady was selling a sort of sweet biscuit/pancake thing made of rice flour and sugar cane which were clearly then deep fried in palm oil I think. Rather sickly sweet but also delicious (not sure if they didn’t upset my tummie a little or maybe it was just the oil content in them) and I had a couple to keep me going along the way. The Mexican man got LOADS of different things which Zar Zar asked to show us which he was apparently taking to his family and friends in his final destination.

This gave me the ideal opportunity to walk up and down the carriage to stretch my legs but also to have a nose at the ‘economy’ travel. This was exactly what Simon Reeve has travelled in on his recent travel documentary that I watched on iPlayer not long before coming out. Hard wooden benches with wooden backs and no seat allocation so I guess when full you would just have to hope that if I’m a group, you would be able to get seats next to if not near each other. I was glad of the rickety old seats I must say.

As we got under way again and just a little bit further down the track we saw a mother and calf that must have literally just been born as after looking for a while we all realised that there were still entrails of the afterbirth coming from the cow and that she was cleaning the new born calf.

We got off in Aung Ban while the goods were loaded on and were able to visit the facilities in the station, with my tummie going mental I was pretty desperate. They were HANDS DOWN the worst loos I visited on the entire trip. A hole in the ground, already slopping with liquid. Trousers around my knees, wipes and tissues to the ready did nothing to prepare me for the stench or the vileness of the amenity. I think I need to add a mini air-freshener to the loo bag I take on trips like this as well as a peg to put on my nose to stop me from retching from the stink. But, if you gotta go, you gotta go!!

On arrival in Kalaw our coach was awaiting us. As we got on the coach I saw a sign for a hotel called Morning Glory which made me giggle and reminded me of my time in Vietnam!

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Kalaw and the Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Centre

On arrival in Kalaw we headed straight to the Shwe Oo Min Paya caves which has around 9,000 Buddha images in there from a number of different patrons all hidden in every nook and cranny of the caves. It was like we’d kind of come across an unknown shrine with the amount of them in there it was frankly most bizarre!! We only made it into the main cave & didn’t head up to the upper cave which apparently has a blank space for even more Buddhas to be put in the fullness of time. Outside of the caves were a number of bright golden pagodas and more Buddha icons in niches across a man made wall. There was the usual bell to announce of your three good deeds which, of course, I got a Kodak moment of! I do find some of the Buddha images to be somewhat kitch (I think that would be the best word to use) with flashing neon lights surrounding several of the images and gaudy looking cloths that had been draped over some of them as well. I am sure that this is because I don’t quite get the reasoning behind (for the lights mainly) the cloths I can see, are all from anyone and everyone and so could be all that the locals could afford at the time? The Buddha images were again in a number of their different traditional poses which gives more meaning to each of them and the majority of them were seated with only a couple were standing or in a lying down position.

If you have one experience in Myanmar – please, please let it be this – Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Centre. I went ‘off piste’ from the group having Googled prior to my adventure when back in the UK, then reviewing where it was again when I was staying on Inle Lake, I suddenly realised it was actually not far from where we were in Kalaw. Kalaw was where we had half a day of trekking planned and not many sites or pagodas to see and so I investigated and also asked our guide to help me book a trip out to visit the elephants. Frankly the remote idea of walking, let alone trekking, in what was 36-38 degree heat when already sweating like a beast really didn’t appeal – been there and done that in China thank you and yes, thinking about it I suppose I have actually got the t-shirt too! I was as high as an absolute kite the night before once it was all booked and I realised that dream was going to turn into reality. (With a somewhat dodgy tummy though so was hitting the Imodium like they were mint sweets) I was so excited I could hardly sleep. Only time I ever remember being anywhere near as excited was in the count down to picking up Honey to take her home (for the record I was EVEN MORE excited then).

I was collected from the hotel we were in (Dream Villa) and there were two other couples already in the mini bus but neither spoke to me when I got in – bode well (thankfully they turned out to be lovely couples – clearly not morning people though!)! The Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Park was a good 45 min drive into the mountains down some hellish roads for Dad and Caroline. Hair pins, chicanes narrow, sheer drops & steep! Apparently Top Gear have done a special in Myanmar and it really wouldn’t surprise me if this was the road that they did it on!! There was lots of work being completed on the road which was actually built initially years ago apparently but they are widening it at present. The drivers are fairly patient in general, letting each other past and so on, but you couldn’t really go that fast on here owing to the numerous blind corners & bends and I hate to think what it would be like driving it at night with no road markings or indeed any lighting. Several trucks were stopped at the side of the road along the route being sprayed with water which I can only assume was to cool the engines and breaks which would be having heavy usage on this road! The views were stunning though but I was very thankful I no longer suffer from travel sickness like I did as a youngster.

On arrival at the park we were greeted by the friendly staff with a damp cloth and a very refreshing lime juice, shown where the mozzie spray was and put into groups – there were others that had arrived at the same time but my group was the five of us from the bus in. Managed to leave my Chilly’s water bottle on the bus which was most infuriating but we were given one each in the introduction, helping to reduce non-essential plastic and in line with their ethos and mission of giving back to the country. We were given an introduction to the park and a run down of the day ahead and left our stuff in the lockers at the main reception. I had made a good decision in relying on my iPhone only for photos I think.

The park was set up in 2011 by a family of three, the father being the vet and the other two to help run the business. They had 2 elephants and 6 staff and both numbers have grown in size and they now employ 48 staff and have 6 elephants. All of them are disabled or orphaned mainly left over from the working in the teak industry where they would more often than not be carrying the timber around in their trunks which can weigh anything up to one and a half tonnes. Some have been purchased from private owners when they have no further requirement for them and they offer to buy them instead of the owners killing them for the black market in medicine (apparently there’s some cure for a particular type of cancer in the elephant but I can’t remember which part but of course it is not proven), for their skin or the meat on their trunks. One is an orphan which they acquired at the age of 3 after his mother was killed by poachers and he was unable to survive in the wild on his own as they rely on the milk from their mothers until they are 3 or 4. The population of Asian elephants in the world is around 35,000 and, owing to poaching, one a week is lost to poachers in Myanmar alone, as a result, they are now classed as an endangered species. Not all Asian elephants have tusks though, it’s typically only the males and they can have short or long tusks and sometimes even only one, it entirely depends on their DNA, like we humans can have different coloured eyes for example.

Our specific guide for the day was called Keong Keong and he was to be my camera man for the day creating videos and capturing the special moments (so a HUGE thanks to him for his sterling work). We walked down from the main reception to the area where the elephants are fed and there were 4 of the magnificent beasts. Two were TOTALLY ready for food, putting their feet up on a ledge and moving around a lot in anticipation and excitement of food! They can eat anything up to 160kg of food a day and ready chopped were palm cane, pumpkin and wheat balls ready for us to feed them with. They can eat a whole host of fruit and vegetables, this was just what happened to be in the menu on that day. We were shown exactly how to feed them either by putting the food on their trunk which they would clasp and then bring up to their mouths but if you hold the food above your head they would raise their trunks high and you can put it straight into their mouths. A daunting thought at first but, I grabbed the bull by the horns and did both straight away with a selection of pumpkin. I got braver as the day went on and on a number of occasions inadvertently managed to get most of my hand sucked into the elephants mouths. They have MASSIVE strong, thick tongues which don’t really come right out as such and their teeth are, as you would imagine, humongous too. They have rows of teeth set in ridges as they don’t chew their food more grind it to then be able to swallow it. I enjoyed immensely the close contact with the animals. I loved talking to them and in a small way bonding with them. I adored the ones with more character the most I think as I kind of wound them up a little and talked back to their cheekiness and as a result had one that pushes me away to go and get more food. (Video somewhere later in the post of this) Wow, just WOW – unless I visit a similar park then I will never experience something like this again. I had SUCH a big grin on my face all day. I adored every second of my day. I wasn’t the only one though, some of the others could be seen as well just taking a step back to take a moment every so often to just take in what we were doing and the beautiful surroundings.

The characteristics of each of the different elephants was interesting to see, one would throw to one side the palm cane when you took that to her telling you that she’s far prefer the pumpkin thanks! She, we discovered, had a gunshot wound that was constantly weeping and clearly must have done some damage to the bone on her left shoulder. The one that we ended up in washing was stood next to this one. A female that had a hernia that was very clear to see on her tummie on her left hand side. We were told that it had been operated on but evidently was still causing her some grief. She couldn’t be walked out into the forest later in the day for exercise for fear of aggravating it and so for exercise she was just walked around the camp.

The Medical record of the elephant we washed

Info on the history of her hernia

We met the vet for the centre and heard all sorts of fascinating facts. Most of the medicines were for cattle mainly, not prescribed for elephants (understandable really!!). It took a while to tune into his accent to understand a few of the things that he was saying. It was fascinating to see things like the nail file and clippers that they use on the elephants. The size of the needles – made my stomach totally turn knowing my dread of the hideous things. It was here that we were shown the medical record for each of the elephants that they have to keep an ongoing record of their health and well being. Now I’ve always referred to large pills that I have ever needed to swallow over the years as horse pills. This I need to change to elephant pills! I put my little finger on them to try and give you an idea of the actual size of them!! HUGE!!

Each of the elephants had a mahout that cares for them all day every day and they lived on site with their family in housing provided by the business with lighting and electricity which they would not have been able to afford if they were still living in the village that they came from. Each of them clearly have an amazingly special bond with their elephant who, despite poor eyesight as a species, would recognise them more for their sound and smell. A primary school has since been set up and run in the grounds of the centre for all of the workers children and there are currently 48 children enrolled. They are properly looking after the community and bringing employment and now education to many from the local area. It was lovely to be able to give back to this as the centre has absolutely no funding from any wildlife organisations, conservation programmes or indeed the local government. They rely solely on the donations of the visitors who come and visit the centre. Responsible tourism, knowing that every penny is being put back in to running the centre with the elephants being the priority.

When it came to our time to wash the elephant, none of us could really contain ourselves. We were given THE most unflattering trouser/short things which you sort of had to tie after tucking them each side and then fold the top over. I was wearing my tankini already under my clothes & was sweating like a beaut. From here we walked down to the river where we could already see the elephant walking down with her mahout. I want to make some suggestions for their website as to what to expect when you get there and clarification over the sort of things to wear so that those tourists interested have a clearer idea of what to wear etc.

Walking down to wash – https://youtu.be/15LVzctFYJY

Washing the elephants – https://youtu.be/GIGdOCpM1TY

Once we were down there the elephant was already in the water kind of kneeling down so that we would be able to reach the top of her head and onto her back without needing to climb on her ourselves. We were given some sort of bark/twigs type things which was to act as a loofah to try and get the dirt off her – we all joked that after a while it really looked like a handful of pulled pork! The elephant did a massive poo just as we were stating to wash her and in my very mature fashion I shouted ‘floater’!!

It was amazing and simply surreal to be in such close proximity to and be so up close and personal with the animal. We were told to clean behind her ears and I know in one of the videos I’m still talking to her like Honey – ‘itchies’ as I could tell that she was loving having them cleaned! You scrub the skin and then douse it in water – I was even brave enough to do her face and around her eyes, being extra cautious and gentle, all the while chatting away to her. At one point her trunk (where they feel most of their senses through) cake up right by me clearly checking out this babbling Brit giving her a scrub & I kind of held it for a little while. I guess we must have been in there (all of the group with the same elephant) about 20-30 mins giving her a good scrub. She only had to readjust her position once – elephant equivalent of a numb bum I guess! WHAT an experience. WHAT a memory.

We headed over to see one of the elephants after some more feeding (grab every opportunity when offered!) so that we could see how the vet gets to check the elephants feet and the mahout got the elephant to turn around and put his back foot up on one of the frames so that we could touch it’s nail and feel just how thick and big the bottom of their foot is. They used to have a cage made out of bamboo to check things like this out but understandably this severely distressed many of the elephants and so that is no longer used. Walking away from here we saw the clear bond between mahout and elephant as the mahout said something and the next thing you see the elephants trunk going to the mahout’s hand so it looked like they were walking hand in hand. It was divine.

Lunch was included so we headed back up to the main reception area where the dining area was passing the conservation/ nursery area where, in the right season, visitors are encouraged to plant a tree in the park as well to help with the conservation. I was quite gutted that this was not something that we were able to do owing to being out of season.

After lunch we went over to the area where they use some of the elephant poo to make paper. Passing through an area where they were planting young coffee plants which were also being fertilised by the elephant dung. The process for making the paper was similar to how we had seen on landing in He Ho but there was an extra process of needing to boil down the poo with water first so as to kill any bacteria or any other living things within the poo which would also help to take the initial poo smell away. You are left with a very fibrous sort of paste out of which the paper is then made. Here we also saw the skeleton of an old elephant that they had lost a while ago, interestingly Asian elephants have nothing similar to a collar bone in them?! There was also the skeleton of a young elephant that was found dead by its mother which the park have also for research purposes it would have been about three months old when it died.

We visited the small little shop where I purchased one of the wooden bells like the elephants wear around their necks, I asked which one was similar to the elephant that we washed as it looked like they had their names on inn Burmese & is noticed that they were all slightly different in shape. After seeing this sign outside the little hut, I’d made us all want to ensure that we got something & amusingly we all ended up going home with the totally unflattering shorts things that we wore to wash the elephants in!!

I came away from the whole experience brimming with information and very aware that I’d actually remember very little the moment I got home! I wanted so much to think of ways to try and help support them. I have mentioned that I want to help with the copy on their current website and give them suggestions of other ideas to look into – such as taking donations via PayPal, perhaps giving people the option to sponsor the elephants, increase the amount of images on their Instagram page and so on, all things that I will liaise with them about upon my return. I’m keen to help and support now that I have such wonderful memories engrained in my mind for many years to come from my superb day here.

Restaurants we ate at in Kalaw: Red brick Restaurant, Nepali – Everest, 7 Sisters

Inle Lake

We had a short internal flight to make the trip up to our second base of the holiday. Flying from Yangon to a small airport called He Ho. It’s pretty much literally just an airport, I didn’t even really see the existence of a town close by to it. It was very small, went with the size of the plane really, two each side of the aisle! But it was a pleasant flight and, as we weren’t flying too high, there was a decent view of the countryside as we flew over. We were even fed a couple of pastries on the flight as well which were gobbled up in moments!

Inflight pastries!

Diddy plane on the runway at He Ho

A coach was ready to greet us at the airport to take us on the short journey to the town of Nyaung Shwe which was to be our base for the next three nights as we explored the wonders and beauty of Inle Lake. On route to the hotel we stopped off at an umbrella & paper making business where we were shown how both were made. The skill and techniques of both were impressive and I of course made one or two purchases for back home, but not an umbrella I might add, as stunning as they were.

The lake is located in the Shan state to the east of the country and is surrounded by mountains. Home to a number of tribes people but most notably the Shan, Intha lake-people of Inle, the Pa-O who wear bright orange turbans, the Loi who live in the long houses and of course the Padang or Kayan which are the tribe of the long necked ladies. Clearly the lake, as with most similar to it, is rapidly decreasing in size and increasing in pollution. Just one generation ago the water in it was clean enough to drink, but now, with the increase in motorised boats for tourism and also local vessels, locals producing more litter and chemicals from the floating gardens on the lake, the quality of water and the size of the fish stock are drastically on the decline. It’s certainly in places as remote as this that you really see the impact that modern day plastics, despite their convenience, have on the natural world.

The main economy in this area is agriculture with the floating gardens on the lake created by the Intha people in which tomatoes and other vegetables, fruits and flowers are grown and are sold to locals and also sent to the larger cities to be sold. Each of the gardens is a long thin strip created using mud from the bottom of the lake layered on a bed of weeds, mainly the floating hyacinth by the looks of it. Most of the tomato crops had just finished and so we either saw the withered plants ready to be taken down or locals prepping the beds for a new crop. Fertiliser is used in the algae that is dragged up from the bottom of the lake and the gardens are all held in place with long bamboo poles and are a clever use of the southern part of the lake. The gardens have become so successful that large portions of the lake have almost vanished beneath them and as a result local farmers have been banned from creating any more. It is thought though that some more are miraculously appearing overnight, however, when the authorities eyes are looking elsewhere – crafty buggers!!

An example of the floating gardens kept in place by the bamboo poles

Getting the algae to use as fertiliser

Fishing is also, obviously, another economic mainstay and whilst we did see a number of genuine fishermen out trying their luck, February is the dry season and so there is not an abundance of fish at the moment. It is here that the fishermen use the unique rowing style using their leg whilst they have their hands free to cast nets and such the like. This has become quite an iconic image for this area and in fact Myanmar itself and so it is not surprising that once you come out of the canal onto the main lake itself you have a number of fairly redundant fisherman happily posing for photos (for a fee) to help them maintain an income all year round as the fish population drops. There were even some incredibly young looking fisherman out on the lake, one looked 8 or 9 and I seriously am impressed with the balance and coordination of them all as the perch on just one end of the boat, I’m sure we’re into try it would be most unbalanced and I’d end up more often than not somewhat drenched. But then this is why they are the skilled fisherman and I am just a western lady with appalling balance!!

Fishermen of the Inle Lake

Our first full day on the lake was sublime – did get rather burnt despite the oodles of suncream slapped on all over ever spare inch of skin not covered and come the end of the day the good old red lobster look had returned as had the Rudolph nose. We were in 4 seater boats where you had a seat but all behind one another and whilst there was an oar, the boatmen were not about to row us across the lake with just their leg! There was a motor at the back of the boat which was bloody loud, it soon became just a background noise though as you powered through the waters. The boats are all made of teak wood which is grown in the north of the country and usually last around 10-15 years apparently. Ours were painted in lewd vibrant colours rather than being the more natural hues of the wood and so I would have thought that this might have prolonged their life span too. Much hilarity was had as the 4 of our boats zipped in and out of each other up and down the waterways.

We visited a number of the local businesses on the lake where we were shown the traditional methods of making things that are still used and preferred today over machinery. Weaving of silk, cotton and even strands made from lotus flower are arduously made and hours spent over creating different patterns, dying the cloth and such the like. It seemed to all take a painstakingly long time to create not that much fabric. All beautiful none the less but you can see why the expense is a lot to buy some of the material premise into scarfs, shawls or other items of clothing. Blacksmith where we saw knife blades being created with multiple workers working all at the same time on the same blade. I honestly couldn’t cope with the heat in there, it was hot enough already without the intensity of the fire pit as well. The silversmith was fascinating as we watched them starting to beat out a small round disc which in time would end up as a bowl or beaker. Made of 98% silver and 2% bronze or copper as it was too fragile to use 100%. We watched as a chap painstakingly soldered together tiny rings which would, in time, all be joined together to make the chain of a necklace. Amazing amount of work goes into creating each piece which you don’t really stop to think about and rather take for granted when buying jewellery. Of course I had a little expenditure in their shop (see it as helping to support the local economy) and got a silver necklace and two pairs of earrings in patterns that are traditional to the Shan culture. After visiting here we popped to the market that was sort of behind the shop, mainly for tourism as there were a number of sellers selling the same old stuff, many of it the fake or not so authentic wares of the lake but there were also some food outlets. Not that I was about to eat anything from them I hasten to add.

https://youtu.be/w4C_QpCw3TM

We saw bamboo weaving and boat making and heard about how the locals all club together paying in a certain amount each 5 days or so into the kitty and each time the market comes one name is pulled out and they get to spend that day on whatever they need. Essentially if they needed a boat they could buy it this was and it was a clever payment plan. You’d have to REALLY be sure that you were ‘in’ with the right people who paid up every month. Of course none of them are going to have the minimum $800 it costs for a basic boat saved up and so it is a really clever and practical way of overcoming this. People can spend it on whatever they need there is no restrictions, but you might get it at the start or the end – just depends when your name is drawn but between the start and end at some point you will get a large lump sum to make the necessary larger expense purchases.

We also met ladies from the Padaung tribe. Clearly up in the area of the lake the they were for tourism purposes, but if it brings them in the money and they aren’t being exploited then fair dos. The ladies from this tribe start wearing the coils from about 9 years old and they have 13 coils which can weigh up to 4 kg, from 17 years old it increases to 14 rings and weights 6 kg and then from 20 there are either 24 or 25 coils that weight from 8 to 10 kg. We had the opportunity of lifting the equivalent coils up and oh my god they were heavy! But why do they wear them? Its thought to be part of the tribes identity and culture. Nowadays some of the younger members of the tribe who want to go into education away from the lake have created and wear a clip version of the coils so that when they move well away from the area they are not stared at and can go about a ‘normal’ 20th century life. One of the ladies was showing us her coils that were installed (is that the right word?) in three different sections so that the lower one which was slightly larger could be lifted up so that the ladies can sleep. It felt a little surreal seeing them having seen and heard so much about them but yet another experience ticked off on the list of new things accomplished.

There are of course pagodas to see on the lake as well the main one we visited which was called Hphaung Daw Oo Paya which is nothing special if I’m honest but houses five small Buddha images which are almost unrecognisable as such as they are ones to which gold leaf can be added, only by men mind and resemble boulders rather than Buddhas now. Ladies are prohibited. This has been explained to us as not being according to the religion but more the tradition on the individual pagodas themselves, not all permit ladies to get up as close as the men can. There are often processions when they are taken in carriages on the boats on certain key dates and have been dropped over the side before now and recovered. One is thought to be a particularly bad traveller as something always goes awry when it’s removed from the Pagoda itself and so followed have given in and made the decision to only perform the ceremonies with four of the original five ‘boulders’.

My favourite of this area however HANDS DOWN has to be Nyaung Oak which is a collection of overgrown and renovated stupas with carvings in many of Buddha, chinthe, devas, elephants and peacocks. Slightly further up the hill, connected by a long collunade (plenty of shopping opportunities which Zar Zar tried rushing us all past!) were even more stupas called the Shwe Inthein Paya which were from the 17th and 18th century. The majority of these are being restored but it doesn’t deflect from their beauty in my mind. He were harassed by locals selling scarves despite our constant and polite no thank you. They are nothing if not persistent! I wasn’t keen on seeing very young children even with an armful trying to sell them to you, but after asking Zar Zar she pointed out that it is actually school holidays at the moment. Plenty of Kodak moments amongst the stupas, a real treat for those who enjoy a good photo!

We also saw ladies making cheroot – sort of a cross between a cigarette and a cigar but with not that much actual tobacco on it. With filters made of bamboo and contents including licorise, star anise, Tabacco warped in a dried banana leaf and sealed with some sticky rice they weren’t too strong to smoke, just a strange flavour. You could buy packs of them in all different flavours as well, banana and honey for example. You saw all of the locals smoking them on the lake young and old but of the younger ones I’d say mainly male.

Some of us did a cooking class on one of the evenings at Mercury Home Cooking School which was a fantastic experience. It was a shortened version of the usual offer as you usually go to the market with the owners to buy all of the products that are needed for the meal, with time constraints in place we didn’t have time to do this sadly. We chose a salad and a curry that we were going to cook and the five of us each chose something different so that we could then try each others. Cooking on clay pot fires in sort of Balti style dishes we prepared all of the meals chopping the meat, vegetables and herbs and being shown how much of each spice and seasoning to add into the sauces. We also made a Shan Soup – well I did that bit which they added in as we had not tried it before. I have to say it was hands down the best meal that I have had here. I chose to make chicken curry and eggplant salad but we also had tea leaf salad (a bit odd, probably not something I’d choose to have again) tomato salad, avocado salad and the deep fried spring onion and veg appetiser – they do seem to deep fry a hell of a lot of things here. It was a family run business with one of the daughters taking the lead in the kitchen department, one also took care of the massage, another did laundry and they also funded an education programme during the holidays for poor children who are a little behind in school with the profits that they make, mainly from the massage. We had a fabulous evening with a lot of laughter throughout and were even dropped back at the hotel after. I’m not normally that ‘in’ to cooking classes but it was so ridiculously cheap it seemed insane not to have a slightly different experience and I loved every moment. There was one slightly worrying moment when we sat down to eat, I had put my antibiotics in my place to remind myself to take one with the meal (for the chest infection diagnosed on the day I flew out) and Tony, one of my fellow travellers took one thinking his wife had put it out for him to take as it looked exactly like the pain killers he takes for his knee. The look on his face was priceless and he certainly won’t live that one down!

Several of us all opted to have a traditional Burmese massage, thought it was quite strange that we were all going at the same time but assumed that they must have a lot of rooms as so many have massages. NOT A BIT OF IT!! We were all on beds next to each other in one room!! I do have to add here that for Burmese massage you keep your clothes on. They do a lot of stretching and pulling and clicking and it was incredibly painful as they worked out the tension in several areas on my legs. I was put in positions I am not sure I have ever been in before now and by Buddha it hurt like hell. No pain no gain I kept telling myself and I could barely help in agony with all the others around me! Some of us did get the giggles at times and the background music was interesting – twinkle twinkle little star and there were 10 in the bed and the little one said roll over (very apt!). There was a little child hanging around who was always popping her head in (I kept opening my eyes as it was hardly calming and relaxing) and I guess that her father must have been ‘working’ on me and he must have been making faces at her as she appeared to be making funny faces at me at one point! It was a hilarious experience and whilst not relaxing as such I certainly felt a good deal looser if nothing else.

While we were staying in the Inle Lake area some of us also made a trip to the Red Mountain winery which was a little way out of the town so we paid for a taxi which waited for us while we did a wine tasting before taking us back into the town area. The scenery was spectacular and one of the group came just for that. The sun was setting over the lake and you could have been taken off anywhere. We tried four wines, two red and two white. Not a fan of red anyway however none of the group deemed them to be palatable, despite the indulgent description. We did however, all like the Sauvignon Blanc from 2016 which we also all agreed wasn’t chilled enough, will definitely be looking for that on the drinks menu looking forward. The Muscat was palatable as well if a little too sweet but would have accompanied blue cheese beautifully. Just the idea of wine tasting in Burma was an adventure that had to be tried to be honest and for the view alone I’d whole heartedly recommend the trip out in the evening time but it does get popular and so you would need to book.

The wines we tasted – Sauvignon Blanc 2016 being favoured most

Beautiful sunset setting

Our last stop before making the train to Kalaw, our next stop on the trip, was a monastery outside of Nyaung Shwe called Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung. The beautiful main sort of central building if it was made out of teak with beautiful oval windows which were apparently were there for views of the monks inside meditating. We were there pretty early so there were not many others wondering around the site apart from the monks. The younger monks were all preparing to go out to the village to get food for their alms bowls as part of the religion is that they are not allowed to prepare the food they eat for themselves and so they rely on the local community to feed them. Just to the right in the photo below there was a man painting the days of the week on parchment for sale in one of the little stalls to the right of the picture (out of sight).

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To the right of the monastery was also a shrine to Buddha which was rather spectacular it has to be said. With small little niches carved into the walls each of which housed a buddha either paid for by locals or travellers as all of the names of donators and the country that they came from were underneath each of the individual niches. Surrounding them were also stories of the Buddha in and around the niches made of shiny stones and bits of glass and as you walked around the shrine you could see the Western influence sneaking in.

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It was on waiting for a party to exit the shrine that I spotted the CHARMING Italian lady that I had the misfortune of coming across on the plane from Dubai to Yangon. I had a nasty coughing fit just as I got on the plane. There was a seat between us but you would have thought that I was coughing literally IN her face from the beautiful unsympathetic looks I was being given (and by her fellow travellers who she talked to in Italian and gestured in my direction and chatted LOUDLY to). Make a girl feel good who already is feeling pretty sick! Anyhow, the beauty made the decision to change seats before take off which gave me the whole row to myself, small bonuses. She and her comrades kept looking over to me throughout the flight and saying things in heated Italian. JOG ON PEOPLE. Its a chest infection and I could have done NOTHING about it. Come the end of the flight, and having worn her dark glasses all flight (not sat by a window I hasten to add) she went to retrieve her bag which she had great difficulty in finding and had 5 flight attendants (no Im really NOT exaggerating) trying to help her look for it. Not long before she had jumped up to retrieve it from the locker above where she was originally sitting, the locker was already open and in jumping up on the seat and not watching her head she smacked her nose in the process. Karma is amazing at times! She proceeded in broken English to say to the attendants that it had hit her on the head when it opened. I went to great lengths to explain to the English speaking attendants that that was NOT the case and gave an accurate description of how she smacked her nose. Idiot. She had hot & cold compress and a plaster. Low and behold at 0715 when the sun was barely visible the beaut had the dark glasses on still exiting the dark shrine and it took literally EVERYTHING in my will power not to jollily chorus ‘Buongiorno’ and wave at her and her party. I did notice that despite the MASSIVE signs at EVERY temple in regards to both shoes AND socks needing to be removed, she had not removed her socks. I just giggled to myself kept clear and regaled the incident on the plane with a couple of the others.

The intricacies in the shrine were amazing and the floor was just beautiful. There were also Buddha images in the centres of each of the areas of the shrine with the 4 Buddhas one of which is lying down so that the other Buddha can walk over him as the legend says that the road was not built at one point and so one of the other Buddhas laid down so that the other Buddha could walk over him. This has been depicted in many of the shrines and temples that we visited on the whole trip.

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Yangon (formerly Rangoon)

Despite the city being the largest in the country it is not actually the capital city. It was seen however, as the capital of British Burma after the Second Anglo Burmese War of 1852, being a port as well with connections to the Indian Ocean and the Ayeyarwady River (which goes deep into the heart of the country) the industrial hub for the country. After World War I the city also became a key location for the Independence movement in Burma (as it was then). The British were finally ousted during World War II and Japanese took occupation (when we sadly, in hindsight, did a lot of bombing across the country) until the allies retook occupation in 1945. During this period the city was known by the British as Rangoon but was returned to being called Yangon in 1989 under the military rule of the country.

Example of colonial buildings in Yangon

More colonial buildings in a fairly rundown state

There is a distinct lack of mopeds bombing around the city by which I was quite surprised. Remembering how much an average car cost in Vietnam, I had assumed that the prices would be similar but I will need to find out from our guide. (An average car starts from around $25,000) The downtown area of the city that we visited was mainly the colonial area along Pansodan Street with some wonderful colonial architecture and an esteemed decadence of a former time. As expected many of the buildings are in a severe state of disrepair yet striking none the less. The multicultural mix of the population stems from India, and China and there are also many Muslims in the country, many of them run the numerous sprawling street shops and food stalls on the streets of the city.

Shwedagon Pagoda in all its glory

Our main highlight in Yangon and must not miss site was the fiercely impressive Shwedogan Pagoda. Known as THE greatest temple in Myanmar and one of the most majestic monuments dedicated to the Buddha, all Burmese endeavour to pilgrimage here at least once in their lifetime. Whilst it’s a temple the main stupa in the centre of the complex is actually more of a mound as one is unable to see inside. The centre of it is believed to have 8 strands of hair of the historical Buddha – Gautama – as well as a few other relics as well from his three predecessors (staff of Kakusandha, water bottle of Konagamana and a fragment of Kassapa‘s robe. All enshrined it’s not possible to view the relic itself, more the casing in which it is housed)

The original Shwedagon dates back to around 588BC according to local legend, which would make it possibly the oldest stupa in the world. It’s more likely to have been built between 6th to 10th centuries however. The height of the stupa was raised to 18m by the Mon king, Binnya U of Bago who ruled from 1348-84. Next, in the reign of Queen Shinsawbu from 1453-72, the height of the stupa was doubled to 40m, the old not destroyed but more built on top of again. It was at this time also that the terrace around the main stupa was laid out, the northern stairway to access the complex from street level was built and further land was acquired and slaves employed to look after the upkeep of the Pagoda and its growing complex. The Queen also started the tradition of gilding the main stupa by initially donating her own body weight in solid gold to do so.

During many of the conflicts in the country throughout the years, troops often looted from the Pagoda. In the 16th century the Portuguese carried off the 325 tonne Great Bell of King Dhammazedi with the intention of melting it down to make canons but that never happened as in transit it fell into the Bago river. The pagoda was also repeatedly rocked by earthquakes, the worst being in 1768 which caused the top of the stupa to collapse and the current stupa that you can see today was commissioned by King Hsinbyushin of the Konbaung dynasty in the late 18th century. The British seized it during the first Anglo Burmese War in 1824 and held it almost ransom so Buddhists could not visit it for two years when it was fortified and suffered a great amount of pillaging and of course vandalism. They also tried digging under the stupa to try and see if it could be used as a gunpowder magazine but did not succeed.

The pagoda became, during the 20th century, a key location for a lot of the political upheavals, using the location as a meeting point to plan protests and General Aung San addressed the masses from here in 1946 to demand independence from Britain. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to a huge gathering in 1988 for the pro-democracy uprising. It was also the focal point of the 2007 Saffron Revoloution where as many as twenty thousand monks and nuns congregated and subsequently marched.

Lift to entrance level

The site has four entrances from street level, we entered through the Southern stairwell which has a lift (which literally only goes up two floors!). As for all pagodas and religious sites, no socks or shoes are allowed and legs and shoulders must be covered. Shawls are available to borrow if you come wearing a vest top though. There is a little man in the lift who seems to sit there all day just pushing the buttons to go up and down up and down from street level to the entrance to the pagoda.

Bodhi Tree

On our arrival into the complex we passed by the tree which derives from a cutting of the original tree Banyan (or Bodhi) tree that the Buddha found enlightenment under from all those centuries ago. The stupa complex is full of smaller shrines all of which have been added over the years. The main stupa itself was sadly covered in bamboo scaffold when we visited so the magnificence of it was a little dampened. None the less it was still a fairly impressive site as the gold shone through the bamboo pretty well. Standing at an impressive 99 metres high it was covered with the bamboo owing to it being in the process of being reguilded with literal tiles of gold. Buddhist followers see it as part of their religion to donate to Buddha and to pay for a new gold tile is a part of this and the cost sound $900 for roughly a 30cm x 30cm square. There was a title ceremony that was happening to one side where people were having their photos taken with their gold tiles before placing them in a sort of chariot which would then travel up the wires to part way up the main stupa itself where I guess they would be almost used immediately to replace the existing. Apparently the main stupa needs this work completed every 5 years or so as the gold becomes weathered and not so shiny.

We were explained by our guide about how Buddhist followers want to give clothing to the Buddha and often donate the robes to the monks however if every one did this to the Buddha statues then there would be piles and piles of clothes and so, instead, gold leaf squares can be purchased and these can be rubbed onto specific buddhas in the pagodas as their way of donating the clothing. We watched as Zar Zar put a piece on though so we could see what Buddhists actually do themselves. Buddhists also bang a large bell three times to tell people that they have done the good deeds, which we watched several people do. You don’t then have to say them or anything though, I guess you are meant to think of them in your head as you are doing do?

There were also several stations in the complex that are linked to the planets as, unlike the Chinese who take meaning from the year that you are born and it is linked to an animal, the Burmese take the days of the week and so the idea is that you visit the day on which you were born (Friday for me) and wash the Buddha at that ‘post’ and give donations of flowers and prayers. There is also an animal linked to each of the days – mine is a Guinea Pig. The rest of the days of the weeks animals are as follows (Wednesday is a little different though as it is split into morning or evening): Monday is a Tiger, Tuesday a Lion, Wednesday am is an Elephant WITH tusks, Wednesday pm is Elephant WITHOUT tusks, Thursday A Rat or mouse, Friday a Guinea Pig, Saturday a Dragon and Sunday is a Garuda Bird.

Hideous selfie of a sweaty me at Friday’s planetary post

The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is another show stopper of a sight to visit in Yangon and a fairly impressive site, tho hard to take in the size from the photos. It’s a humungous reclining Buddha lying almost 66 meters long. A fairly feminine face that’s 7.3 meters long, despite all depictions of Buddha being male with amazing 33cm long eyelashes, a nose of 2.7 meters and 50cm high eyes with blue eyeshadow. He has a little bindi, a diamond encrusted crown pink fingernails and golden robes that are decorated with glass mosaics and golden markings. The soles of the feet are red with lots of different markings on them. Surrounding the drama of the giant Buddha are lots of individual Buddha images all in the various positions that he is depicted in. The building of this Buddha first began in around 1959 but wasn’t in fact completed until 1974 and it replaced a previous giant seated Buddha that was on the same site which was demolished in 1957. The name of the pagoda means six storey pagoda which is in reference to the original Buddha on the site, the current one now in place is only around 3 or 4 storeys high.

Hard to capture the scale of the reclining Buddha in a photo

Our first meal out was our introduction to Burmese food where we were explained by our guide to the background of the style, there are a lot of curries which are heavily influenced by India to its left and there is also a Chinese influence with the country being located to the right of Myanmar. Essentially a lot of noodles and rice, morning glory, ladies fingers and everything else in between. The Myanmar beer, at 5%, was pretty much the order of the day and we all enjoyed the added ‘fun’ of the on bottle promotion where you had to peel back the plastic on the underneath of the bottle top to see if you had won a free beer or money. I was lucky on either my first or second (I can’t remember which) and won a free drink, a positive start to the holiday!!

FREE BEER!!!

Hotel stayed in – Panda Hotel

Restaurant ate in – Doreen

Cu Chi Tunnels

On our last morning we had arranged amongst ourselves for 6 of us to travel on a tour taking up the majority of the morning prior to the time needed to check out. It was slightly more expensive than some that we had looked at but it was pretty much the only one that we could feasibly fit in before we were collected from the hotel for our transfer to the airport. We were collected from the hotel and taken to a boat station where we boarded speedboats and having donned the oh so fetching life jacket. Soon we took off and sped down the river for a speedy trip out to visit the Tunnels.

We were given breakfast on route and some of us chatted, I was quite happy just to sit and watch the scenery as we sped out of Ho Chi Minh City heading in a northerly direction as the crow flies. I found it fascinating watching the speed boat weaving in and out of the water hyacinth, I wondered how often that got caught in rudders. It was wonderful to just watch life on the water just carrying on and to be away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city.

Once we arrived at the tunnels, we were even more grateful of the unholy hour that we had got up at as the car park was pretty much empty with perhaps a coach or two only in view and we realised that we would absolutely be viewing this historic site with very few other hangers on.

The Cu Chi Tunnels became legendary throughout the 60’s really I think when the Viet Cong took control of the 30-40km rural area down to Ho Chi Minh. It is thought that at its absoloute peak the tunnels stretched all the way from Ho Chi Min City right over to the Cambodian boarder. The network of tunnels themselves is thought to have been as long as around 250km in total. It utterly astonishing when you think about that in more detail. Several areas of the network of tunnels were also storeys deep and obviously included int eh construction were countless trap doors, living areas, kitchens storage facilities, weapons bases, forms of hospitals and nursing stations as well as command centres.

The tunnels apparently took around 25 years to build, starting back as far as the 40’s built by a poorly equipped peasant army for the French invasion of the area mainly for communications between villages but also to help the South Vietnamese evade the French troops. They were returned to for the war in the 60’s – extended and strengthened and repaired where needed. The Tet Offensive attached were actually planned from here in 1968.

Over the years the Viet Cong worked on making the tunnels difficult to both detect and also disable. Wooden trap doors were heavily camouflaged with earth and branches and some were even booby trapped. There were examples of these for us to look at on the site and the simplicity of some of the booby traps was unreal yet utterly destructive and maiming to its victims.

There was an opportunity to see if you could disappear down one of the tunnels quickly – most of us in the group looked at each other looked at the hole and worked out that we’d never actually make it in never mind out! We were shown how it was done within a matter of seconds and we did manage to persuade one of the group, a far slender gentleman than the rest of us to have a go as well. It was fascinating.

Because of the deception of the South Vietnamese by their careful and skilful creation of the tunnels they were able to evade so many troops who tried to find them in the area. As a result US and Australian troops launched large scale ground operations to try and identify the location of the tunnels by defoliating rice fields and bulldozed huge amounts of the jungle, evacuated villages and the Americans used a whole host of chemical bombs not he area including napalm and set fire to the dry vegetation but the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air and created cloudbursts that extinguished the fires leaving he Viet Cong safe in their tunnels. Being unsuccessful in thier attempts to flush them out the Americans started sending down ‘tunnel rats’ who ended up in sustaining horrific injuries and thus casualties owing tot he underground fire fights and booby traps.

The Viet Cong were clever, very very clever, when the Americans tried sending down dogs into the tunnels to attack them, the Viet Cong started washing in US soap and wearing US Uniforms so as to confuse the dogs into not attacking them. Owing to the amount of dogs also killed or maimed as a result of the booby traps, which of course they could not spot, the Mexicans started refusing to sending their dogs to their death by going down the tunnels.

It wasn’t until the late 60s that the Americans gave up as such and carpet bombed the entire are with B-52s which destroyed a number of the tunnels as well as anything else that was around at the time. But it was seen merely as a symbolic gesture in the end as the Americans were pretty much on their way out of the war by this time and the tunnels had already served their purpose. It left the area devastated with chemicals left in the soil and water, leaving farmers and workers at risk and the crop yields depleted.

There was an opportunity to go through one of the tunnels but at 1.2m high and only 80cm across and unlit – I decided that I could get what it felt like from above ground without the need to crawl inside myself. I think that I would have found it far too clautrophobic for comfort.

It was an eye opening experience to put it mildly. To suddenly hear gunfire from the area where you were able to pay to fire genuine AK-47s as you were walking around the site was utterly surreal. None of our group fancied shooting the real guns for a small fortune but to just stand and hear the guns going off felt creepy in itself.

From here we headed back to the speed boat and sped our way back up to the terminal that we had left from where we were given some lunch and returned to the hotel in plenty enough time to change, shower finish packing and await our transfer to the airport and home. What a trip, action packed with such a variety of activities and a wonderful guide who really helped me to enjoy the country that in time I would like to return to to explore more of.

Mekong Delta

Thankfully someone did come up trumps on my emergency call out for Immodium. A great way to start the day, but I was determined that I was not going to miss the day as we were heading out to pop along to different places via different boats along the Mekong Delta and I was really looking forward to it. I managed to sip some coffee and have some toast to put at least something in the tummie as I felt TOTALLY drained from the previous nights events & was feeling a little weak and shakey.

We had a short coach trip to get to the boat that we would be initially heading out into the Mekong Delta on. It was fascinating once we had chugged out of the boat station to see the amount of what looked like rubbish floating on teh water, but on closer inspection and after askiing Hung we realised it was actually a growing plant which is a weed and in some areas is a nightmare to the local farming area.

Our first stop was to a Honey Farm (Bee-z) and a Chocolate producer. Both were fascinating though I am not sure that I really wanted to spend time holding a large piece of Honeycomb with all of the wasps (or were they Vietnamese bees?) still buzzing all over them! Others bravely did and we sampled some Honey tea and a coconut treat before moving on to see the raw cocoa beans and a brief sample of the process of the bean to bar. Having done all of the work with Menier Cooking Chocolate whilst working at Geometry PR it was fascinating to see it all for real rather than on the pages of a book or wikipedia! The chocolate was dark and bitter and delicious and whilst I could easily have taken some home, I pointed out to myself that it was ruddy warm out and that anything that I did buy would surely melt into some form of lump before it even made it back to my case in the hotel!

At the end of the trip to these establishments they were very keen to show us thier pet, clearly a hit with the tourists – a MASSIVE python who was aptly named Python! They were keen for people to pose with him around thier neck and for some unknown reason as no one else stood forward, I did. Why? Ive no idea as I detest snakes. They freak me out in Harry Potter yet here I was offering to have an 8ft one draped over my shoulders. Honest to god, I worry about myself at times! So photo was dually taken, it was fine  – i do actually look like i am crapping myself in the photo and that was becuase I almost literally was (the loo was the final stop before getting back on to the boat) The snake was moving across my shoulders as I posed and it was SUCH a strange feeling as his muscles were put into action alonf his body as he moved. I say he, I have no idea if it actually was a he or a she?! I felt very proud of myself – another thing ticked off the random things to do list!!

The next stop was to visit a family-run business that made coconut sweets and some other items. They showed us how to get the flesh out to use in the sweets & they cracked open a large coconuts which was fascinating, if not rather dangerous looking!

Having purchased some of the sweets for work, thinking that they are less likely to be ruined in the heat of the rest of the day, we all tried a number of different fruits some which were delicious and sone that had just THE strangest texture to them.

From here we were taken by horse and cart through some of the local area to the next type of boat that we got to the stop for lunch which appeared to be in the middle of no where. But lunch was all laid out ready for us. As we were near the water, unsurprisingly we had fish for lunch. First course was prawns in their shells followed by an Elephant fish which was sort of filleted in front of us. Absoloutely THE last thing that I felt like eating I have to say! My stomachs turned at the sight and smell of it after the previous day/night’s experience.

During our meal, where all I had was beer, we were sat at tables of four and Chris and I were sat with Rosemary and Chris. Somehow we got onto the topic of Morning Glory and Rosemary clearly was not aware of the other meaning for it and was going on and on about the plant in her garden, with EVErY sentence she uttered the rest of us were in stitches, unable to control the giggles, especially as her husband kept trying to get her to stop aware that she was not clued up on the other meaning. I laughed SO much it hurt and I had tears streaming down my face, it was most definitely a case of you had to be there.

From here we were transported in tiny little boats through the amazing bamboo clad waterways to lead us back out to the main point on the delta to revised our larger boat back to the boat station that we had started from earlier that day.

Back at the hotel we had a short while to get ready for the final meal that we were going to have that Hung had arranged the location for, not too far from the hotel. It was above some shops and you walked through a sort of mini supermarket to a lift at the back which only took a couple of people to go up a few floors to get to the restaurant. There were very few others in there when we arrived and they were very slow at getting the drinks out let alone the orders for food. It was here that we gave Hung his tips and I was the one that thanked him for his time and information to help make the trip a great success. Unfortunately I started off by saying how we had all enjoyed our tome in Cambodia – WRONG COUNTRY EMMA!!! As the food had not arrived for many, several of us decided to leave, pay for what we had and try and find somewhere else to eat. We headed to the burger looking place just up from the hotel. Several were leaving early int he morning and so we bid our goodbyes to several, but some of us had all managed to book on to a trip tot he Chu Chi tunnels the following morning which was not part of the Explore trip.

It was lovely to make it to bed feeling a reasonable temperature, even if a tad delicate still and still quite weak. I was proud, and relieved that I had managed to last the day.

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon

We made our way to Saigon by plane on an early flight after an early departure from our hotel in Hoi An flying from Danang. The weather was definitely warmer and incredibly humid in the capital city. You could tell it was far more cosmopolitan than the previous places that we had visited really and certainly not as quaint I felt. The room was wonderfully (and thankfully) air conditioned and a welcome relief from the sweat central heat of outside – with only such a short visit there was no chance my body was going to acclimatise in time!! It was quite a stark contrast to the previous temperatures that we had been in.

After about 10 mins in our rooms we were back downstairs for a walking tour and lunch out. I didn’t really feel the vibe of the city – it was quite hard to work out my bearings in general but with little more than 48 hours we did a pretty grand job of shoving everything in, well the major sights. There seemed to be even more bloomin mopeds on the streets and passing through the city from the airport was eye opening watching all of the mopeds at all of the traffic lights stops. Obviously being a much larger city there were bound to be more but it just felt as there were even more as the streets were wider than they were in say, Hanoi.

We headed out to wander the streets to see the sights and first off was to grab some lunch. The weather really was stifling and I was struggling a little, downing water like there was no tomorrow. Unsure of what to have to eat as I was always wary of ordering something that had the jolly old bell pepper lurking in it. I decided to go with another Cao Lau which I had chosen back in Hoi An and which was utterly delicious – Japanese style noodles seasoned with herbs, salad greens and bean sprouts, served with a slice or two of roast pork. I knew what it was & I couldn’t really go wrong with that choice. HOW WRONG COULD I BE??!!

Unfortunately my dish was a little dissimilar to the version that I had in Hoi An and most importantly atop of the dish was delicately placed a prawn in its shell still. This was not mentioned on the menu at all and Hung was excellent at explaining to the restaurant why I. Could not have the dish and how they simply couldnt just take it off the top and I eat the remainder of it. After much. Agitated discussion the dish was taken away and was being remade without the prawn on the top. I was incredibly suspicious of the second version and I was adamant that there was still prawn in it. Hung reassured me that the restaurant had promised that there was none in the replacement. I kind of had to take his word for it and so had a few mouthfuls before declaring that I really wasn’t that hungry after all and that it was probably because of the heat.

We walked past the People’s Committee Building which we, as tourists, were unable to enter. Its style was French colonial of course looking similar to a sort of Hotel de Ville as you would see in France. At one end of it is a huge statue of Uncle Ho and the other a ole Thor’s of construction where the proposed central city station will be for the new Metro station that is slowly being built/created in the city.

Other sites that we passed on our walk were the Opera House, which is near to the construction of the new metro system. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral which was a rose brick colour and built between 1877 and 1883. Its based in an area of the city known as the city’s government quarter. Being so close after New Year and so close to Tet, we did find that most of the places that we were keen to see the inside of were not actually open, I think I would have liked the opportunity to explore the city a little more I have to say. The impressive towers of the cathedral, Hung told us were around 40m high and the top bits are iron spires. Its still an operating Catholic Church. The Central Post Office we did get an opportunity to look inside of and it was fascinating – a HUGE portrait of Uncle Ho (obviously) took the main position and line of sight as you entered the building.

I’m not sure that I could honestly say that it was the highlight of the day, more the most poignant part of the day was the visit to the War Remnants Museum which we had already been advised in our trip notes was to give us a very different version of the Vietnam (American) War than that depicted by the Americans. It was a gruelling visit. But a very. Necessary one to fully appreciate the more recent history of the country. It was already sweltering and I was feeling incredibly feint walking around all of the halls of the artefacts that were on display as well as the mass of photos of the atrocities in the other areas of the country during the 60s. The after effects of the chemical warfare and the clarification../realisation that actually millions died in this country for, as far as I could tell, very little reason what so ever. The descendants of those that were hit or came into contact with the napalm and other chemicals that the Americans exposed millions of Vietnamese to are still disfigured and disabled to some degree. Seeing some of the images of those that were effected first hand were disturbing to say the least but yet one wanted to soak it all in to truly understand the utter atrocities that took place in this beautiful country.

I couldn’t do all of the rooms, too emotional and was starting to feel not just too hot but really quite unwell. I came outside and perched with a bottle of water out of the sun and watched an American dressed in American clothes, many apologies to any American readers, sort of all saluting to and in praise of the army who spent a good 10-15 mins setting up a camera to take a photo of himself all thumbs up happy smiley posing next to the American built F-5E just that was used to bombs he Presidential Palace in 1975 and sits in the courtyard area of the museum. I felt sick. I mean I did anyway but I couldn’t honestly believe what I was seeing. It was certainly NOT the act of compassion or understanding of the atrocities and frankly murder or millions of innocent civilians in this country. I was INCREDIBLY close to going up to him and saying how inappropriate his actions were, but if Im honest I thought I might actually have thrown up all over him my stomachs was starting to churn something chronic.

We made it back to our rooms to freshen up etc before all heading out to supper – mainly tot he delicious sounding restaurant around the corner that Hung had suggested and booked for us all. Whilst ‘freshening up’ the idea of ANYTHING passing my lips at this stage bar itsy bitsy teeny weeny sips of water made me nauseous and I had spent quite a while not more than a step away from the bathroom. There was absoloulty NO WAY that there was no prawn in the second version of the lunchtime dish. This was typical of a shell fish reaction – GET OUT OF MY BODY by ANY means possible and via any entrance or exit point. Im present sure that I do not need to go into much detail. I binned the idea of going out for the meal and went through a FREEZING cold stage where i was literally shivering in my room, had ALL the clothes I had with me on pretty much in the bed, air-con off & I COULD NOT get warm. It was 33 degrees outside and yet I felt like I was in the arctic. I decided to have a bath, that might relax me if not warm me up. I sat in it as it filled up so that my body could get used to the heat, my body was BRIGHT pink front he heat of the water yet STILL I was shivering. Safe to say that I was NOT in a good way. I was really quite concerned and had decided that if it didn’t subside by the morning I really would have o go to hospital to get checked out as this was not actually funny. What with he head cold as well for the majority of the holiday I just felt like a massive bundle of feebleness.

I put out an emergency call for Imodium for the following morning as I was really looking forward to the day ahead but it was ALL on little boats out on the Mekong River and I honestly had no idea what to do if it continued into tomorrow as I couldn’t possibly make the trip out.

At some point I must have got to sleep, how Ive not idea and why, in hindsight, I didn’t just go and stand in the corridor outside my room which had no air on in it I have no idea! That surely would have warmed me up?!

Hoi An

It was lovely to have a day that wasn’t so scripted, to be able to chill a little and do my own thing. My lurgy was still raging but I decided that although I should probably rest up while I could there was also a town out there that needed exploring and you never know if/when you are going to visit again. I had my breakfast and headed out to do a spot of exploring at my own pace.

As I headed from the hotel on the walk into town I was stopped by a girl getting off the back of a scooter who walked with me as I ambled along the road towards the town. We chatted and of course she was wanting me to visit her shop as she was a dressmaker. Well that was job no 1 sorted – to find a dress maker and have some clothes made, because I could. As I’m still trying my hardest to loose some weight it was pointless in trying to get anything too jazzy or expensive and so some basics were on my agenda. Having been measured up to the nines on the top half, I chose a couple of tops including a traditional style top instead of a dress which had beautiful lanterns all over it – apt for the town I was in, it was a no brainier! As I was wrapping up my choices and paying I saw someone else having a try on of a dress that I thought might be quite useful too so I asked for that as well. From here I also went on to have some sandals made two the same and in different colours. An extravagance but I’m looking forward to saying that I had them made in Vietnam!!

From here I went to see the market as we were told it was better to go in the morning as there weren’t many trading in the afternoon. The heavens opened and I was glad to have managed to have got the pac-a-mac just in time else I’d have been drenched through. It was wonderful seeing all the fruits, veg and meat all laid out as well as the fish and other bits and pieces. I’m not sure that food hygiene is a massive thing out here, it all I could think of as well as how fresh everything looked.

Having had a further amble and understanding of actually quite how small the town is and how it was going to be easy to see the old part of it at total ease in a day. I headed back to the hotel to have my massage and pedicure that I had booked. It’s always pretty hard having a massage when you are totally blocked up but to the amusement of the masseuse I shoved a tissue up each nostril and put some more tissues by my shoulder and lay down ready for my full body massage. It was wonderful, really good to get some knots and tension out even if it felt slightly odd having the lady almost sitting on top of me while she did it.

I had a shower once is finished to get all the oil off and wash my hair and sorted myself out for the remainder of the day out and about seeing the sights of the town. Dosed up on yet more meds that were frankly doing absolutely nothing to ease the symptoms as far as I could tell.

I headed back out to have my afternoon amble and see some more of this quaint little place. I visited the Old Chinese Assembly Hall that Hung had recommended which was beautiful but TOTAL Death by Incense which properly got to the back of my throat. It was nice to be able to do things at my own pace I must say.

There is quite a Chinese influence in a number of the buildings as there as when the Chinese settled here they identified them selves according to their province back home and as a result each community built their own assembly halls which all remain today. There is also the Japanese covered bridge, first constructed in the 1590s by the Japanese community to link them to the Chinese quarters. It was flattened out for cars to use by the French but it has thankfully since been restored to its arched shape. There are alters or rather fairly weathered statues of dogs one end and monkies the other, thought to be because it was built in the year f one and finished in the other or because many of the Emperors of Japan were born in these years.

Because of the location Hoi An is totally vulnerable to flooding and the lady who encouraged me to go to her dressmakers was telling me and showing me how high it can come up and how quickly they have to move to stop all their stock from being ruined. It was fascinating and thankfully not something that we experienced while we were there. Here are some general photos of the town, hopefully it will give you an idea of how stunning it was & kind of why I fell in love with it.

On my amblings I ran into two of the group – Paul & Chris who had spent most of their day sitting and people watching in the same bar by the river in the sunshine. They were rather pink! I joined them for a few more beers and people watching tasting massive bits of ginger from street sellers and generally giggling lots before they went off for massages and a rest before coming out later to collect their jackets that they were having made that day as well.

I went to collect my clothes too and was really pleased with them & the shoes I’d had made too – I did ask for a couple of amends to the clothes, a chinese style traditional top needed letting out a little and the basic dress I had, I wanted the sleeves slightly shorter so they were delivered back to the hotel for me to pick up when I got back after supper.

Danang

Well New Year was a total wipe out for all of us apparently as not ONE of the group was there to se wit in with Hung who was apparently enjoying the free flowing wine until the early hours, well ok maybe until just after midnight!

Today was as a part travelling day as we headed further south to our next overnight destination of Hoi An – the town I’d heard most about from other travellers to Vietnam that apparently was a must see and do not miss place and I’d love it. Remembering the bumpy roads from Cambodia in the bus, I used my neck support from the plane to help ease the jolty movements and so cause my neck any unnecessary extra pain. I felt proud of my self as I really do think that it was a tremendous help. We took the Hai Van Pass which is a beautiful winding mountain road where you pass a great number of sights. Thankfully I was on the right hand side of the bus so I was unable to see the utter nut jobs on their bikes overtaking the bus on sharp bends. There were a number of shrines at the side of the road that I had full view of which I can only assume were for those killed in accidents on the roads. When we weren’t climbing the pass in the bus we passed the typical scenes that I was expecting to see and hoping to capture on camera (but have failed it appears) of workers or should I be calling them farmers out in the paddy fields.

It was on this road the Hai Van Pass that THE Vietnam episode was filmed for Top Gear, the one that I have never seen, yet have still put a link to, despite never having seen it 🙂 The pass was the boundary between Vietnam and the kingdom of Champa back in the 15th Century and until the war in the 60s was heavily forested. There is a fort at the top which we stopped at which is full of French bullet holes and was also used as a bunker later but the Americans and South Vietnamese. It was clearly also THE place to have your wedding photograph taken, as everywhere in Vietnam seemed to be!

If we weren’t in a bus we could have shaved an hour off our journey by using the Hai Van Tunnel but lorries, tourist buses, motorbikes and bicycles are banned from taking that route, mainly in case they get stuck apparently?

We headed to Thuy Son which is the largest and most famous of the Marble Mountains which houses a number of Buddhist sanctuaries, that were originally Hindu and pagodas which also gave some wonderful views of the sea. They were very picturesque and it was lovely to see some sights finally in some warm sunshine after a quick 10 mins on the beach in Danang to paddle in the frankly FREEZING waters of the South China Sea! Definitely not tempted to strip off and have a dip, that was for sure!

From here we headed on to Hoi An. Having checked into our hotel which was walking distance from the main town and, even better, had a massage & pedicure option which I was sure to be partaking in the following day! Hung took us on an orientation walk after a little time to ‘freshen up’ in our rooms. My word, having heard so much of the town I was certainly not disappointed. The atmosphere and lack of traffic was enough alone to make me want to stay here for longer than the 36 hours or so that we had. Sadly the photos of the evening walk did not come out well enough t really demonstrate  the utter beauty of this place, Ill try adding a few though to try and give you an idea.

We had a delicious dinner in a restaurant called Banana Leaf where I sampled one of the traditional dishes of the area called Cao Lau which was delicious. In fact everyone had a delicious meal that evening and went to bed stuffed and ready to explore on our own the following day as we had a day at leisure, a day I was really looking forward to to potter and do my own thing.

Hue

Pronounced Hway or even Hey, Hue was our last stop of 2017. Exhausted from the ‘experience’ of the overnight train we thankfully were able to get into our rooms at the hotel where we would be for two nights. An interesting room. The bathroom was separated from the bedroom by a LARGE  pane of glass and as far as I could see, absolutely no curtain to maintain dignity if sharing. I jumped straight in the shower relieved to feel slightly more awake and, well err clean. Slight issue on the exit from said shower – there were no towels in the room. I looked literally everywhere. Thankfully I travel equipped with a travel towel from the days of the Great Wall of China when we were told the towels were the size of tea towels just in case the same happens again in a foreign country – never needed to use it again until now! Blimey, the organised packing was TOTALLY paying off now!

On arrival at the hotel we were pointed to Mr Fix It who owned a little shop next to the hotel where was good for a basic authentic lunch and did laundry on the cheap and if you needed pretty much anything – Mr Fix-It was your man! This was welcomed news and I put in several bits of laundry and when I came to get a beer and lunch found the majority of the rest of the crew also dining there. What a lovely friendly chap and tasty lunch for very little, man just a sandwich, bag of crisps and a drink back at home was the same as a 3 course meal for two here with beer. Crazy. But then I am also a millionaire here (sadly only in Dong). It’s a nice feeling seeing in the new year as a millionaire!

We set off on a trip down the Perfume River before our walking tour of the Imperial City. By boat of course. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but I think perhaps something slightly more picturesque and perhaps more floral along the banks? We thankfully had the boat to ourselves and we chugged down the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was built on a hill overlooking the river. This Pagoda is deemed to be another icon of Vietnam and symbol of the city of Hue almost as much as the citadel itself (which I’ll come to later). With a wide stairway leading up to the Thap Phuoc Duyen sits impressively at the top with its 7 storeys standing at 21m high and dedicated to a manushi-Buddha (one that appeared in human form).Originally constructed in 1844 the tower itself was a built during the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri. The Pagoda itself was believed to have been originally founded in 1601 by a gentleman called Nguyen Hoang who was the governor of the Thuan Hoa province at the time. Sadly over the centuries many of the surrounding buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions and since the 60’s it has been a key spot for several political demonstrations. To the right of the tower is a pavilion which contains a stele which is thought to date from around 1715. It’s located on the back of a giant turtle – a symbol of longevity in Vietnam as I have mentioned in a previous post.

To the left of the tower stands a six-story pavilion which houses an ENORMOUS bell from 1710 which weighs 2052kg and can be heard from an amazing 10km away!

The actual temple itself is found in an inner courtyard past the triple gated entrance where there are three statues of Buddhist guardians stand keeping watch. It was a very serene and tranquil location and there were a few Buddhist monks around and at one point started a small ceremony in the temple which really was rather calming, I could have stood and watched the goings on for hours but sadly time was pressing on and we needed to see the rest of the site before moving on to the citadel in the centre. There were a number of monks tending to the trees pruning them ahead of spring and collecting wood and I even witnessed a class of children being taught as I peered over a wall at the sound. All of the different colour of robes denoting their rank or perhaps status is a better word within the religion. There were HORDES of people (well more than we had seen or even encountered at our other tourist spots) and trying to get photos without them in was quite an accomplishment to put it mildly!!

The coach picked us up outside and we headed towards the citadel which is based in the centre of the city. Built between 1804 and 1833 it is heavily fortified with 2m thick walls that are 10km long and there is a moat that is 30m across and 4m deep surrounding the citadel and it’s 10 gateways. There are several sections to it, the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City are deemed to be the most important and formed the epicentre of Vietnamese Royal life at the time.

We entered the Imperial Enclosure through the Ngo Mon Gate which faces the huge flag tower and reminded me hugely of the gateway to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The central passageway, noted by its yellow doors was reserved for the use of the Emperor only as was the bridge to it across the lotus ponds in front. Anyone else coming into the Imperial Enclosure came in through the other gates seen on the sides as well as the pathways around the pond. On top of the main gate is Ngu Phùng (Belvedere of the Five Phoenix) and a massive drum and bell right on top. It was at this gateway in 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated and the Nguyen dynasty came to an end. The Imperial Enclosure itself is pretty much a citadel within a citadel as the walls 6m high and 2.5km log walls surrounding the emperor’s residence, temples, palaces as well as the main state buildings. It was sadly bombed during the French and American wars and so what is left is sadly only a fraction of the original with 20 out of the original 148 buildings surviving in tact. It all felt rather run down in general, well what was left obviously, with weeds often popping out of random places, a lot of rubble and broken masonry but yet none the less I could almost picture the Emperor and his dignitaries wandering around in their gowns. We passed several places where small restoration projects were taking place – clearly wisely using the money that they had to the bed of their ability.

The Thái Hoa Palace (Palace of supreme harmony) dates back to 1803 and it was where the Emperor would receive guests on state visits as well as to welcome other important ceremonies and official receptions whilst sat on his the throne on a small raised platform in direct line to the entrance gate I mentioned previously. It’s essentially a large hall with a highly ornate timber roof all a deep reddy colour and amazingly the majority of it original, just a few pillars were in the process of being restored.

The seemingly most in tact area of the citadel was the To Mieu Temple Complex, mainly as it has undergone some significant restoration. The temple itself houses a shrine to each of the Emperors, identified by their photos. A solemn peaceful place of worship and respect to times gone by. Outside of this building stand the Nine Dynastic Urns which are dedicated to only one of the Sovereigns. They are HUGE things – standing around 2 meters high and weigh apparently 1900kg and 2600kg. They each symbolise the strength of the power and stability of the Nguyen throne at the time. I had my photo taken here next to one so that you can see how tall they really are. (The main photo of this in particular blog post). There were also some really random dragons in what looked like telephone boxes that I didn’t really quite work out.

We headed back to the hotel via one part of the Nine Holy Canons on the way out which are located either side of the flag tower. They were never intended to be fired and weight about 10 tonnes a piece – I’m not sure how many people it would take to move each of them into position if they did want to use them but it would certainly do my back in!

We went out to Elegant Restaurant, chosen by Hung, as our New Years Eve meal. It was in a street which was a hive of activity compared to our hotel a little out-of-town. They were gearing up to celebrate the New Year further down the street with THE MOST god awful singer RUINING a number of well-known ballads from across the years. I was THIS close to going over to either pull the plug or take over myself. Even Hung was getting wound up with it and went off to identify what all the racket was. After the meal we headed back to the hotel where a ‘party’ was being held by the manager of the hotel in the foyer to celebrate new year with all of the guests. There was red wine for all and we were given, very thoughtfully, a present each. Wrapped in a box that was totally different to the contents it was all rather bizarre. I got a compact mirror – as someone who barely looks in a mirror apart from to put contact lenses in or, more recently, pluck out the odd whisker off my chin, it was going to be hiding in a drawer never to see the light of day again. The gesture was gratefully received and we all stood round sipping the fairly offensive red wine that we were given and everyone kind of wanting to piss off to a bar or head back to where we had just come from to see the New Year in with some what more atmosphere than there was at the hotel. I, however, was blooming grateful and as a loather of New Year festivities when I’m just not in the mood for it found it TOTALLY acceptable to actually slip off to my bed. Tucked up I was by 1030pm enjoying the fact that the bed wasn’t constantly moving around & that it was quiet after the journey on the train the night before. I left a fair few of the group all ready to see in the New Year, somewhere. I’d be waking in 2018 with a clear head and rested.

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