Tag Archives: awesomeness

Bagan: Nearly as many punctures as temples

With over 4,400 temples in a space the size of Manhattan, the biggest problem you face is deciding where to start. Especially when you’re still recovering from a dreadful bus journey.Bagan Temple

Our bus from Inle Lake was ‘only’ supposed to take 12 hours, but it started to go wrong from the start. Our taxi dropped us off at the road junction at 4am, only for us to sit there shivering for an hour by the side of the road while we waited for the bus to turn up. If it wasn’t for the nearby hot donut stand I think I may have cried. Eventually, though, it turned up, and we began the long, slow winding journey down through the mountains. Progress was glacially slow, as we seemed to stop EVERYWHERE to pick people up – and this on a bus so small that each seat only sat one and a half people, meaning we had to take in turns to be the one with one bum cheek balancing on the seat and the other hanging off into the aisle. Although at least this was balanced out by the ability to stretch one leg out – for the leg room was minute, and not helped by the fact that the area under the seats was stuffed with luggage.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then ended up stranded in Kalaw for about three hours with a damaged axle. It all got a bit much for Sam who decided to run down the road to try to by a plane ticket to Bagan instead. I was on the verge of cracking as well, when eventually they fixed it and we were back on our way. And in the end we were only 5 hours late – that’s 17 hours stuck on a bus, and without doubt the worst journey in over 11 months of travelling.Bagan Temple

With such a nightmare behind us, it was an easy decision to spend the next day on a tour rather than under our own steam, so we hired a couple of horse & carts, and spent the day being driven around the major temples.

As we drove down the main road from Nyaung U towards Old Bagan, it soon began to become apparent quite how many temples there are in the area – they are literally everywhere. The site is on a wide, flat plan in the bend of a river. It’s a very dry region, so it has an almost desert like feel, with smaller bushes and trees rather than being thickly forested – and one of the benefits of this is that its easy to appreciate quite how big the site is and quite how many temples there are stretching away as far as the eye can see in every direction.

They were built over a period of hundreds of years, with each successive ruler wanting to leave his mark in a different way, meaning that the temples are in a variety of styles, shapes, and sizes, from tiny to gobsmackingly large. Some of the them have fantastic beautifully painted interiors. Others have huge stone buddhas in varying positions. Many have massively thick walls and are dark and mysterious inside. Others allow streams of natural light pouring in from different doorways. Here and there you come across ones that are still being repaired after a devastating earthquake in 1975. Bagan Temple

Best of all are the ones that allow you up onto the roof, from where you can really appreciate the scale of Bagan. Our cart driver clearly knew what he was doing though – for he saved the best til last. Just before taking us home, he took us to a small temple just outside the city walls. From there we climbed to the roof – and were rewarded with the best view we’d had to date, with all the biggest temples lined up around us. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the biggest and best ruins in the world in the past – Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu, Borobodur, Tikal, Ephesus – and none of them even come close to matching the scale of Bagan. Utterly breathtaking.Bagan Temples

Feeling refreshed after an easy day being driven around, and a good night’s sleep, we decided that for the next day we’d take a more strenuous option, and hire some bikes to get a bit more off the beaten track.

This turned out to be the worst decision of the trip so far (yes, even worse than eating in bus station in Yangon). For getting off the beaten track meant getting off the roads, to see the temples of the central plain. It started to go wrong almost immediately as we soon found ourselves cycling into thick sand that made peddling impossible, so our progress was slowed as we kept having to stop, then push the bikes for a bit, then get back on, and then off again….Bagan Temple

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things soon started to get worse. One by one, we all succumbed to punctures. First one wheel, then the other, until all five of us had two flat tires. The culprit? The whole area was growing with thorny bushes, leaving vicious, 2cm long thorns everywhere. The combination of flat tyres and thick sand made riding impossible, so we were forced to push on, getting more and more dehydrated. Things soon got even worse, when am cycled over a branch and had some thorns whipped across his leg – producing quite a lot of blood. Consulting the map we realised we were still quite some distance from roads in every direction, and with steadily dipping morale we pressed on, abandoning plans to see certain temples in favour of the most direct route back.

Just as we were about to collapse, we turned a corner…and found the first people we’d come across all day, at a remote temple in the middle of nowhere. We were delighted to find they had a little shack selling cold drinks. And even more so to find they could actually repair our punctures – it turned out that each bike had dozens, and in the end it took five of them a good hour to fix, while we cooled off.

Refreshed and revived, with working bikes again, we were delighted to find from there on in, that the dirt road was wide, smooth, and clear of thorns – and the rest of the day passed by like a dream, stopping every hundred metres or so for yet another stunning temple. There really is nowhere quite like it in the world.

Bagan Temple Gang

The Burma Gang: Sam, Frankie, Andrew & Tony

Two days was enough however – as after that we were truly templed out, and I was beginning to worry whether or not visiting Angkor at in a week’s time would really be a good idea….

You can see all my photos of Bagan here.

The Gentle Giants of the Sea

The Tarsiers were cute. The Thresher Shark was cool. But they were just a warm-up for the big one: swimming with whale sharks (or Butanding as they’re known locally).

I missed them by a few weeks while I was in Utila – so there was no way I was going to make the same mistake in the Philippines. For Donsol is possibly the best place in the world to see the world’s largest fish, and it’s become a magnet for travellers who want to try their luck. It all turned out to be one of the craziest experiences I’ve had so far – but easily one of the best too.

After another typical Philippine journey (boat – bus – taxi – plane – tricycle – jeepney – tricycle) it was straight to bed an up early to get a place on a boat. Luckily enough I ran straight into Simon (who I’d had met in Manila) and four of his friends who were looking for one more person to make a boatfull and we were soon on our way.

Now despite the fact that Whale Sharks are pretty huge by fish standards (they can grow to over 10m long) they are still pretty small compared to the size of the sea – which is where the spotter comes in. The six of us loaded onto a pretty small bangca (outrigger boat), with a local spotter standing perched right up on top clinging on to the mast, and his task is to scan the sea for the telltale dark shadow just below the surface.

waiting to swim with whale sharks in donsol, philippines

Getting ready to go...

It’s a pretty difficult task, and we spent the first couple of hours cruising around in circles with no luck, and our initial excitement soon gave way to a worry that we’d be one of the 5-10% of boats that fail to see any during peak season. So we’d just settled down to a snack (peanut butter sandwiches) when the boat suddenly slowed down and our “Butanding Interaction Officer” suddenly cries go go go! and the madness begins.

The boat is pretty damn narrow, and of course our snorkels, masks and fins were scattered all over the place so we had chaos as we all frantically climbed over each other, kitted out and jumped into the water after our guide.

Now the boats aren’t allowed to get too close to the sharks, so you have to swim pretty quickly if you want to get there in time before the shark dives. That sounds easy enough – but it turns out two other boats had arrived at the same time, so the water was a churning mash of bodies and fins all ploughing through the water at high speed, the confusion being compounded by the fact that everyone is looking down (to try and see the shark) rather than ahead (to see where you’re going and who’s in front of you). On that first attempt the chaos was overwhelming, I felt like I swam fast enough to qualify for the olympics (amazing what adrenaline can do) and all I ended up with was being battered in the head by fins. For the shark dived before we got there.

After all that excitement the disappointment was crushing…so we swam back to the boat, climbed in, and got back to the waiting game. This time the waiting wasn’t quite so long, and despite being a bit more prepared for what was happening, it was all still just as chaotic – with one crucial difference. As I manically paddled away I suddenly saw movement just below – and it was enormous. After all that waiting nothing could prepare me for the moment I realised I was swimming just two metres above a Whale Shark, gently gliding its way through the sea. It was a bit of a blur of spots, a huge dorsal fin…and then it was gone, suddenly diving back down below our range of visibility.

excitement at having just swam with a whale shark

The celebrations begin

It may have just been a brief glimpse, but it was incredible, and as I all surfaced and looked around, I was surrounded by people grinning like idiots and cheering and laughing. It’s impossible to describe if you haven’t done it, but the combination of hours of hanging around waiting, one minute of frantic, adrenaline-raising swimming, and then just thirty seconds of seeing what you set out to see turns out to be the perfect recipe for inducing euphoria.

Whale Shark Fin

A fin (what did you expect? They're far too big to fit in one shot when you're swimming right on top!

The atmosphere on the boat afterwards was electric, and it still hadn’t worn off before it was time to go again – and yet again we were succesful. The second encounter was very similar to the first one, and had exactly the same results, and by the time we tried again for a third time, failed, and then were told by the captain it was time to go back in, none of us cared – because even those brief glimpses had been incredible.

Whale Shark Fin in Donsol Philippines

This time, a fin


Whale Shark head in Donsol Philippines

and finally the head

But all credit to the spotters – we were already an hour over our allotted time and still they kept on looking. And boy am I glad they did – for soon the cry went out again and we had the best encounter yet. This one was huge – about 10 metres long – and really close to the surface. So close in fact that at one point I practically jumped out of the water to get out of the way as its tail nearly hit me as it turned. We got to swim with this one for longer too, and as if that wasn’t exciting enough, we had literally just started climbing back in the boat when we were back in the water again for one final encounter, this one just as good as the previous one – and for me especially, as it swam right towards me, meaning its entire length from head to tail passed right beneath me.

Post whale shark high

Post-whale shark high

Words cannot describe quite how awesome the experience was. The wonderful feeling kept going all day, and even now as I type a twinge of that incredible natural high is hitting me again.

What a way to end my time in the Philippines. The usual round-up posts will follow next – and then on to Singapore.