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Getting away from the Split crowds

Split was undeniably stunning, but it was pretty crowded too, and after a couple of days of wandering around, I was ready for somewhere a bit quieter, and a quick flick through the guidebook revealed that it wasn’t the only World Heritage site in the area – just an hour up the road is the pretty little town of Trogir, which I hoped would be a little quieter.

Getting there turned out to be slightly more of an ordeal than I’d hoped – no-one seemed to know where the right bus station was, and when I eventually found an address, my usually good map-reading skills failed me, and I soon found myself wandering round the rather less attractive back streets of Split’s old town in circles. On the verge of giving up I started to head back towards town, only to walk straight into it. Doh!

Sod’s law inevitably meant that the bus to Trogir was the only one in the station that was old and non-aircon. Which would have been fine if it hadn’t been for the fact that temperatures were soaring towards 30 degrees. Meaning that by the time we arrived, I was a dripping mess – in fact it was a hotter and more unpleasant bus experience than any I’d had in Latin America or South East Asia, thanks to the fact the windows didn’t even open!

Trogir from above

Trogir from above

Luckily for me I’d already discovered that in Croatia you are never further than a couple of metres from a Gelato stand, so I didn’t need much of an excuse to stuff myself full of frozen fruity loveliness (why can’t we make ice cream like that in England??) and I was soon cool enough to go for a wander.
Trogir Cathedral

Trogir Cathedral


The main square

The main square


It turns out that the old town of Trogir turns out to be like a tiny, less busy version of Split, with a stunning little old town sitting on a small island. Like Split, the town has a beautiful cathedral sat at its heart, in a lovely little square, with a series of narrow pedestrian alleys running off in all directions. As I wandered round the maze, I barely saw another person, and yet there were fantastically well-preserved buildings at every turn.
One of Trogir's little alleys

One of Trogir's little alleys

Another highlight is the wide promenade that runs along the eastern edge of the island, lined with restaurants (mostly serving rather lovely Italian food, something I was quickly learning was the norm in Dalmatia) and with the shell of a massive fortress at one end, which gave a great view across the (empty) town. Which was bizarre. Just an hour away from Split, just as beautiful, and without the crowds. I do find it strange how people all flock to the same place and ignore somewhere just as nice just down the road. Still, I wasn’t complaining, and I dragged out my afternoon in a cafe as long as I could while I waited for the day to cool down and I felt safe to brave the furnace-bus back to Split.
Trogir Fortress

Trogir Fortress

You can see all of my photos of Trogir here

Which country is this again?

Before this year, about the only things I knew about Split were that it once hosted the European Athletics Championships and that it was the home town of tennis player Goran Ivanišević. But flights at short notice to Dubrovnik or Sarajevo, where I’d really wanted to go, turned out to be stupidly expensive, and so I ended up on a plane to Split instead.

The holiday was a very last-minute decision – my focus since getting back from travelling was to find a job; once that was sorted and I’d signed a contract, I decided to say farewell to my travels with a final backpacking trip before re-entering the world of the grown-ups. I’ve fancied seeing the western Balkans for a while, and I wasn’t sure where to start – but booking the day before I flew made up my mind – Split was the only affordable choice and so I soon found myself in the unusual position of heading somewhere I knew very little about.

One of the main narrow alleyways in Split

One of the main narrow alleyways in Split

With little knowledge I wasn’t sure what to expect as I got off the airport bus – and was instantly amazed. The shortish walk from the terminal to my hostel took me through the ginormous city walls, past the cathedral, and through a maze of narrow alleyways, down one of which turned out to be my hostel. The city was stunning.
Split Cathedral

Split Cathedral

I’d arrived in the city pretty late at night, so rather than explore I settled down in the hostel to watch the opening of the world cup over a beer or two, before retiring to bed, eager to explore the following morning. My first impression was overwhelmingly how Italian it felt – firstly, on a physical basis, the old town is formed around the remains of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace, and is fantastically well-preserved, with huge stone walls, and dozens of tiny, winding alleys squeezing between beautiful stone-walled shops and houses which occasionally surprise by opening up into cute little squares, or opening into little courtyards. The sense of confusion is heightened by the food – pretty much every restaurant in town serves pasta and pizza, and little stalls selling amazing gelati appear around every corner. The final element is the huge number of Italian tourists, meaning I heard the language everywhere. The main difference though was that I was enjoying myself far more than I’ve ever managed to do in Italy so far!SplitThe only downside was the sheer volume of tourists crammed into the old town’s walls – and this was in June, before the height of the tourist season – although I soon discovered they were quite easy to avoid by deliberately setting out to get lost in the alleyways, where I soon found peace and quiet and the chance to chill out and read in one of the many lovely little cafes.
Getting away from the tourists

Getting away from the tourists

A more surprising place to get away from the crowds turned out to be the cathedral bell tower – bizarrely, and inexplicably, I was the only person up there when I went, despite the cathedral and square below being thronged. The view from the top, across the red roofs of the city to the mountains in one direction, and out across the harbour to the islands in the distance is beautiful and one not to be missed.
Split from above

Split from above

After a hot day wandering around the city, the best way to cool down was to head just out of town and along the coast to the city’s beaches. It turns out that most of Croatia’s coast is rocky – but one immediate benefit of this is that the water everywhere is absolutely crystal clear, and it felt great to cool down by jumping in. One of the best bits about being at the beach in Split is seeing pretty much everyone in the water playing the local sport of Picigin, a marvellously pointless and very athletic game which consists of a group of people trying to keep a little ball in the air. Wearing Speedos appears to be compulsory, and it all looked rather fun with people leaping about all over the place. It’s mostly played in Split, but there are clearly enough players around the world that they were advertising the forthcoming world championships while I was there!

You can see all of my photos of Split here.

The perfect autumn day

It’s been a pretty grim start to the autumn in London so far, which has been particularly depressing for me – I carefully planned my trip to avoid cold weather everywhere in the world so the impending winter will be my first for nearly two years – and then suddenly, unexpectedly, yesterday turned out to be glorious.

Now you may call me biased, but in my opinion there is no more beautiful city in the world than London on a day like yesterday. The blue of the autumn sky is deeper and the sun more gentle which flatters the city’s buildings far more than the harsher summer light or the usual grey skies. And not only were the skies clear, but it was unseasonably warm too – over 20 degrees.

Hayward Gallery

Hayward Gallery

Knowing it might be the last warm day of the year I rushed out to enjoy the sunshine and went for a lovely long walk through the city, starting out at London Bridge, wandering along the Thames, stopping off here and there along the way for coffee and to read the papers, but mostly playing with my new toy – my iPhone (when I left the UK no-one I knew had one and I vowed I'd never get one; by the time I returned everyone I knew did so I eventually succumbed) and the marvellous Hipstamatic app that produces lovely retro-styled pics.
View from the Golden Jubilee bridge

View from the Golden Jubilee bridge

Every step of the way and London was looking ravishingly gorgeous, especially all along the South Bank. As I crossed the Thames towards Charing Cross the sun was starting to dip in the sky and I suddenly had the urge to catch the sun set, so headed up through Soho, along Piccadilly and into Hyde Park. Suddenly it was like being back the height of summer – the place was packed with people eating ice cream, boating on the lake, showing off on rollerblades, and even sunbathing with their shirts off.

Sun setting over the Embankment

Sun setting over the Embankment

The highlight of the day was still to come though, for as I crossed into Kensington Gardens I remembered that the new Anish Kapoor installation had just opened. It consists of four monumental, stainless steel sculptures that reflect their surroundings, changing in appearance with the time of day and the weather.

Sky Mirror

Sky Mirror

C-Curve

C-Curve

They were all stunning. I think my favourite may be Sky Mirror, a giant concave circle that sits facing out across the Serpentine. But each is quite different and I’m going to have to go back soon to see them at different times of the day (especially Sky Mirror, Red – with the sun setting behind, it just looked black rather than its normal red).

Sunset over the Round Pond

Sunset over the Round Pond

Sunset

The last of the sun

I’d made it just in time to see all four before the sun shone its last rays across the Round Pond and finally dipped behind Kensington Palace. It was the perfect London day, and after a week where I’d been missing travelling reminded me how lucky I am to be living here.

You can see the full set of photos from my walk here (oh and yes, I know I promised posts on Croatia at some point…I will get there soon – hopefully before my next trip!)

Realising it’s time to go home

After nearly a year of travelling, I’d managed to visit some of the world’s most spectacular historic sights – Teotihuacan in Mexico, Copan in Honduras, the Lost City in Colombia, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Moai of Easter Island, Borobodur & Prambanan in Indonesia, and finally Bagan in Burma. But after all that there was still one major sight left to see. I’d deliberately planned my final couple of weeks to save the best to last – and so my final new country before heading home was to be Cambodia, and for one main reason: Angkor Wat.

The prospect of visiting Angkor is if anything even more daunting than Bagan in Burma – while Bagan has around 4,000 temples to Angkor’s 1,000, in Angkor they are spread out over 1,000 square kilometres (making Bagan’s 50 seem relatively compact). Factor in the two million plus annual visitors and trying to work out where to start to see the best bits and avoid the crowds was pretty daunting.

Angkor Thom Gate Cambodia

One of the gates to Angkor Thom

So I basically took the easy way out and let someone else decide for me. I hired a moped driver, met up with him bright and early, and soon found myself whizzing out of Siem Reap across the huge, flat, forested plain that makes up the site. I’d briefed my driver to avoid the highlights of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (partly to save the best til last, but also because they’re the closest to Siem Reap, making it easier to visit by bicycle the following day).

So we started off at Banteay Srei, at 32km away from Siem Reap the furthest of the main temples. The temple is small but beautiful, particularly with its fine, intricate carving. However there was one thing that got in the way – I was instantly disappointed by the crowds. I knew it would be busy, but coming just 6 days after leaving Bagan behind, to be confronted with quite that many people all in one place was a real shock to the system.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

I was worried that the rest of the day would follow a similar pattern, but was very pleasantly surprised – it seems that everyone starts out at Banteay Srei, but then heads off in different directions after that, meaning most places never felt too crowded.

I visited so many temples that first day it’s hard to pick out the highlights but I’ll have a go…

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm


Everyone has seen pictures of Ta Phrom (or at least seen it on film in Tomb Raider). It’s famous for the fact that it’s one of the few that hasn’t been completely restored, meaning that in several places trees are still growing out of the stonework. Despite having seen it in a million photos, it’s even cooler up close. Having said that though, it’s one of the busier temples, which is why I much preferred Ta Som.
Ta Som

Ta Som


Ta Som is a tiny little temple – but its eastern Gate has been entirely devoured by a tree, possibly even more impressively than at Ta Phrom. And with way fewer visitors.

Near to Ta Phrom is the massive Ta Keo – which is certainly worth skipping if you have a fear of heights, for the staircases are ridiculously steep. It’s all worth it though, for the views from the top are spectacular. Meanwhile Preah Khan was the final highlight of my first day, its enormous ruins are like a massive crumbling maze I wandered around getting lost for ages.

After a long day on the motorbike I arrived back in Siem Reap amazed at the wonders I’d seen and even more excited about the following day. And that of course, was when it started to go wrong. I really should have learnt from my mistakes in Bagan, and spent day two with a driver. But oh no, with nice paved roads meaning no danger of punctures, I headed out bright and early on my bicycle for another day of exploring.

Yet again of course, this would turn out to be a mistake. First of all, I’d underestimated the distances involved (funnily enough the kilometres fly by when you’re on a moped…but no so quick under your own steam). The area is flat enough, but I’d completely failed to factor in the fact I’d be cycling long distances in a steamy, humid, tropical climate. I was soon soaked to the skin in sweat, and getting through water at a ridiculous rate of knots.

Being on my own, without a local moped driver, also exposed to me to another danger I’d entirely missed the day before – the millions of hawkers who patrol every single temple. As soon as I’d stopped my bike and started to lock up, I’d find myself surrounded by kids trying to sell me drinks, postcards and nick-nacks. Alongside them would be yet another group intent on dragging me off in different directions to get me to eat at their restaurant. With me being on my own, and a bit hot and bothered, there was no escape, no laughing it off with a mate, and instead it soon became deeply annoying.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat (plus scaffolding)

Further disappointments were in store – I pulled up outside the star attraction, Angkor Wat….only to find the main face covered in scaffolding for a refurb. Marvellous. It was also, of course, the most crowded I’d seen so far. The day wasn’t all bad – the temple of Bayon, crowned with dozens of faces carved into its towers, was probably my favourite of all – but overall, the combination of heat, hawkers, and crowds meant my patience was beginning to wear thin.

Bayon

The massive stone faces of Bayon

The final straw was seeing sunset from Phnom Bakheng. I’d been warned that the premier sunset viewing spot would be crowded – but nothing could have quite compared me for the entire tourist population of Siem Reap converging simultaneously at the top of a temple. There was barely room to move, and to cap it all, the sunset really wasn’t all that spectacular (especially as the position of this temple doesn’t let you see temples framed against the setting sun).

Waiting for the sunset

Waiting for the sunset

In the end I headed back down before the sun had even slipped below the horizon, to get away from the crowds, and I began to reflect that the real problem was that I was simply templed out. A year of sightseeing had been amazing, but I realised that I was starting to get blase about it. The more spectacular historic sights, beautiful sunsets and amazing landscapes you see, the more everyday they become and the fussier you get. After months of thinking I’d never be ready to go home, the slight feeling of disappointment I got on my second day at Angkor finally made me realise it was time to go home. Strangely enough, knowing there was no more sightseeing to be done almost felt like a weight off my shoulders. All that was left now was a week on the beach topping up my tan, a weekend of partying in Bangkok, and then home.

You can see all of my photos of Cambodia here

Impressions of Burma

It’s funny think that if I hadn’t walked through a glass door and ended up in hospital I might never have made it to Burma. But doing just that put paid to my plans to spend some time diving on the Andaman Coast, and finally made my mind up to book a flight to Yangon.

Yangon by night

Yangon by night

It’s probably worth saying straight off that for a long time I had been a supporter of the tourism boycott (that interestingly seems to have a far higher profile in the UK than in many other countries), but in the last year I’ve had numerous conversations with other travellers that had started me questioning my stance – and finally this year a friend of mine from back home who knows far more about Burma than anyone else I know talked me into it.

Ultimately the thing that swayed me was the argument that the boycott is damaging the people far more than it is the government (who don’t suffer that much at all thanks to being propped up with cash from lots of Asian governments like China). Sanctions mean that Burma gets way less development aid (about a quarter of the amount per capita) than near neighbours such as Bangladesh, Laos & Cambodia. Visiting as an independent tourist offers a way to give money directly to people running private businesses (incidentally the Lonely Planet is pretty helpful at advising you on how to minimise the amount of cash you spend that goes to the government), and we made a real effort to spread our cash around rather than spend it all in the same place. Furthermore, it was interesting to see quite how much people were willing to open up when talking one to one, about their views of the government – and it seems that the vast majority want tourists to come and see for themselves how the junta keeps the people poor and repressed.

I’m so glad I did make the decision to go, as the country was one of the highlights of the whole year of travelling. It was certainly the most intense experience of the whole year, with some amazing highs interspersed with some of the more challenging bits of the whole trip – most notably the rather terrible bus journeys and food that was often even worse (and had us leaping for joy at the sight of this restaurant in Nyaungshwe, by Inle Lake):

Inle Pancake Kingdom

The best pancakes in Burma

There were times too when the poverty became hard to bear – between the five of us, we tried to spread our money round as much as possible to help as many people as possible – but you have to acknowledge you can’t help everyone – which led to a sadly farcical situation in Inwa, where we decided we’d rather sight-see on foot, and spent the afternoon being followed around by a horse and cart driver desperately trying to persuade us to use his services (and being told repeatedly no). We ended up trying to escape him by taking short cuts across fields, but every time we thought we’d got away he’d turn up again.

No escape

No escape

Luckily though the highs easily outweighed the lows. I’ve already written about how Yangon is one of my favourite cities in Asia, on how Bagan really deserves to rival Angkor Wat in terms of global fame, and on the wonders of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

Bridge over Inle Lake

Bridge over Inle Lake

But there were plenty of other highlights too. Inle Lake itself is absolutely stunning. It’s edges dissolve into a series of floating vegetable gardens and houses on stilts, so it’s hard to see where land ends and lake begins. Even better is taking a boat out early in the morning to explore the area – at that time of day on a clear day even the sky and the lake seem to blur into one.

Inle Lake fisherman Burma

The unique rowing style of the Inle Lake fishermen

Meanwhile around Mandalay it’s easy to spend a day stopping off at the former capitals of Inwa (with its rather amazing leaning tower), Sagaing (and its many temples on a hill overlooking the mighty River Irrawaddy) & Amarapura (with the rather incredible U Bein’s Bridge, at 1.2km long, the longest teak bridge in the world).

The leaning tower of Inwa

The leaning tower of Inwa

In terms of natural beauty and historic interest, the places I visited in Burma rival anything else I saw in Asia, and all with way fewer tourists than in most neighbouring countries (and all still pretty cheap too). Even better is the fact that in many ways its traditional culture is better preserved than many countries in the region. For a start, it’s the only Asian country I’ve been to where people still stick to traditional dress, with the clear majority of men & women preferring the skirt-like longyi over trousers. Equally distinctive is the use of thanaka, a creamy paste derived from a sandalwood-like tree, and which most women and children use on their faces and arms as a natural sunblock.

Sunset over U Bein's bridge

Sunset over the beautiful U Bein's bridge

Best of all though, yet again were the people. From the moment we arrived at Yangon airport to the moment we left, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people we met everywhere. Everyone says mingala ba (hello) in the street, people regularly stop just to have a chat, and people go out of their way to be helpful, and even when times got a little bit stressful people were always there to help cheer us up. People constantly surprised us with their reactions, like the woman from Inle Pancake kingdom who chased us down the road to try to return the money we’d left as a tip (she thought we’d accidentally overpaid). It’s a great tribute to the people that they manage to remain so friendly and upbeat despite the best efforts of the government, and I hope one day soon that they get to escape from military rule.

You can see all of my photos of Buma here.

Next (and final) stop: Cambodia

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.

Hiking to Inle Lake

Nice as Kalaw was, we weren’t really there to see the town. No, we’d put up with the nightmare bus journey so that we could hike through the hills to Inle Lake, stopping off at various hill-tribe villages along the way.

We’d originally planned to do a three-day hike, but after the little attack of food poisoning that had hit half of our party, we decided it was probably safer to stick to two days. There was still no sign of Tony, who we’d had to leave behind half way to Kalaw, but in his place we were joined by the lovely Nieves from Spain, who I’d spent a lovely couple of weeks with in Indonesia before Christmas, and who happened to arrive in Kalaw the same day as us (backpacking really makes the world feel like a small place).

Sam and Frankie were a bit worried that the hike would be a bit much of an effort as they were still recovering from illness, but luckily we were dealing more with gentle rolling hills than great big mountains, and being slightly higher up, it wasn’t even too hot – perfect hiking weather. It was beautiful right from the start – a wonderfully unspoilt pre-industrial landscape of rolling hills and fields still being farmed by hand, using buffalo-drawn carts in place of anything mechanical.

The local landscape

The real highlight of the hike though was stopping in the villages – these routes still don’t see a lot of tourists, and so we were greeted nervously by the villagers in many cases – although when it turned out our guide could also speak various different local languages in addition to his native tongue, it opened a few more doors and helped the villagers to relax in our presence, and had them asking as many questions about us as we did about them. I felt a little bit sorry for the young children though – in almost every case they burst out crying and ran away as soon as they saw us. Not the best reaction in the world!

Pa-O Villagers

Pa-O Villagers

Unfortunately we had a slightly disruptive effect in another village just before lunch – we happened to turn up on the day of a village festival. As we came round the corner, we saw most of the village on their knees at the entrance of a large hut, celebrating the festival. I’m guessing it must have all been a bit dull for the kids, as these ones came running after us as they were fascinated in us (and our cameras in particular). They insisted on posing for photo after photo (and absolutely loving the results). It was all great fun but I do feel a bit bad for disrupting the village festival. Whoops.

Local celebrities

Soon after that we were invited into another family’s home, where we had tea (and where the matriarch of the house quizzed the three boys about whether we were single or not and would we like to marry her daughters or niece?!). That’s certainly the first time I’ve ever been proposed to.

After a long first day we finally made it to our night stop – where we’d be staying on the floor of a teak monastery. Meeting (and chatting) to the rather deaf Abbott was a rather interesting experience, and yet again we had more fun with some of the local village kids who came round to see who the visitors were.

Pleased to see us

Day two of the walk was much easier – as we headed mostly downhill from the village towards the lake (although we were also slightly nervous about the fact our guide warned us we’d need to look out for poisonous snakes escaping from the controlled burning that farmers were doing just a short distance from the path!).

Water Buffalo

The walk was a magnificent experience – the villagers we met are mostly still living a very traditional lifestyle, and were wonderfully friendly to us. I’d love to go back again though at the end of the rainy season (rather than at the end of the dry season, which is when we there), as I bet the landscape looks even better lush and green, rather than the dusty brown we got to see.

Possibly best of all though was the fact that we’d made it two whole days without major incident!

You can see all of my photos of the trek here.

Only just making it to Kalaw

We packed so much into our first day in Yangon that we decided to change our plans and head straight for the hills the following day – on our first night bus of the trip. Tempting as it would have been to fly, I’d done a fair bit too much of that of late (well, Indonesia & the Philippines being island nations gave me an excuse to be nice and lazy) and so I had no choice but to go for the 17 hour bus – the longest single bus journey I’d taken since Argentina, and I had a sneaky suspicion that Burmese buses wouldn’t quite be up Latin American levels of luxury.

With such a long journey ahead of us, we stopped off to refuel at the bus station. Experienced travellers will already have spotted our mistake there and then – bus stations around the world are hardly noted for their gourmet cuisine, and this one was no exception. Filled up with rather unpleasantly greasy chicken and vegetable curries, we got on the bus and settled in for the long journey north.

Burmese bus station food

The offending meal. The dish in the far left hand corner of the table was memorably described as 'cow's arse soup' by Tony. It may have been his downfall.

The plains north of Yangon are some of the flattest, dullest landscape I have encountered on any bus journey yet on this trip, but I wasn’t complaining, as flat = quick, and anyway, we were kept quite entertained by Burmese pop videos (best of which: a Burmese cover of Britney Spears’ Womanizer) and some rather slapstick comedy.

Soon enough we were to be introduced to one of the unbreakable rules of Burmese bus travel: they must stop every three hours on the dot so that the locals can all have a full meal. As everyone piled out and enthusiastically tucked in, we decided to abstain, which was probably a good move, as it was soon after getting on our way again that the troubles began. Tony started to feel very ill indeed, and after a couple of unscheduled stops, eventually had to be to be let off the bus – and ended up being dropped in the new national capital of Naypyidaw (it turned out to be quite an interesting experience for him – they don’t get to see many tourists, especially american ones!).

Birthday celebrations on the way to Kalaw

The remaining 80% put on a brave face for Frankie's birthday


Our second three hourly stop was at midnight, where, despite the loss of one fifth of our party, we managed a beer to celebrate Frankie’s birthday, before reluctantly heading back on the bus before it wound up into the mountains.

It soon became apparent that the food poisoning hadn’t just hit Tony, for soon enough Andrew and I started to hear groans from am & Frankie in the row behind us. I was worried we wouldn’t make it at all, but luckily, the building of a new road meant that it didn’t take 17 hours after all – but 12, and the bus dropped us off in Kalaw at 3am. By this time Sam and Frankie could barely speak, and only just made it to the hotel. Fortunately a very understanding owner showed us straight to our rooms and allowed us to delay check-in til the morning.

As always, I was very grateful for my iron stomach – and continued to be later that day, as our first meal in Kalaw turned out to be as greasy and flavourless as the one in the Yangon bus station. Burmese food was rapidly becoming the one thing we didn’t like about the country.

Kalaw Paya, Burma

Lovely Paya in the middle of Kalaw


The town itself was lovely, with a beautifully tiled Paya right in the centre, and another collection of golden Payas outside a cave full of Buddhas just outside the town, that all made for a lovely afternoon of walking around the town – well, lovely enough until we realised that Frankie’s birthday, already ruined by food poisoning, had plunged to even lower depths by losing her camera.

We soon fanned out round town to head to everywhere we’d been all day, and in the end it turned up – outside the Buddha cave. We headed back to the hotel to celebrate, with Sam & Frankie beginning to feel better (although still no sign of Tony), and it really felt like maybe our luck was beginning to turn – especially as the staff at the hotel insisted on buying us some food to help us celebrate. We were, understandably, rather wary, but the dish we ended up with, a salad of fermented tea leaves with nuts, garlic and chilli, turned out to be the nicest Asian salad I’ve ever had (and began to redeem Burmese food somewhat)

We had an early start planned again for the next day, so we soon headed to bed for an early night. Just three days in, and Burma was already turning out to be the most intense experience of my travels so far.

How to do Yangon in a day

Getting up at 4am is never the best way to start the day, but at least I was able to comfort myself with the knowledge that it was just going to be a ‘travel day’ – I planned to spend most of the day chilling out in Yangon, perhaps exploring a little bit of the city near to the hotel, with the serious business of sightseeing left to the following day after catching up with some sleep. Or so I’d thought – it all ended up far more hectic (and a lot more fun)

I travelled to Bangkok airport with Sam (an Englishman I’d met at the Burmese embassy a few days before, and subsequently bonded with over a nightmare adventure wandering around Bangkok trying to find suitable clean and unmarked US dollars to take to notoriously fussy Burma) and Frankie (a German who happened to be in the same hostel). A slight flight delay saw the three of us chatting to two Americans, Andrew & Tony, and so when we finally arrived in Burma, the five of us decided to head to a hostel together – the wonderful Motherland 2. Seriously, if you’re a backpacker planning a Burmese visit, this is totally the best place to start – they’ll come and pick you up from the airport (for free), give you loads of tips on what to do in the city and round the country, advice on getting the best exchange rates and book all your onward travel for you too.

Colonial building, yangon, myanmar

Faded colonial grandeur


After checking in, showering and changing, it was about 11am and the five of us decided it was time to head out for a little wander around town. The first thing that struck me was that Yangon is a gorgeous little city. There are loads of colonial-era buildings still standing, and the centre is much more low-rise than most in Asia (I’ve only really felt the same atmosphere in Lao cities), giving it a much more human scale and charm that I’ve really missed since leaving Latin America.

Unsurprisingly enough there are way fewer white faces on the streets of Yangon compared to Thailand, so we definitely stood out. But it became apparent straight away that this was going to be a very friendly country – armed with the one word of Burmese we’d picked up at the hotel (Mingalaba) we set about saying hello to everyone we passed and got plenty of amused smiles and Mingalabas in return.

Sule Paya, Yangon, Burma

Temple in a roundabout


As we approached our first major sight – the Sule Paya, a huge golden-domed temple in the middle of a roundabout at the heart of town – we had our first proper interaction with a local. We were stopped by an elderly monk (who looked remarkably like Yoda) who told us all about the Paya and then proudly displayed his world knowledge by giving us each a fact on finding out where we were all from (Chicago – Al Capone!; Germany – Angela Merkel!; London – John Terry! (yes, still no escaping the football even in Burma).

The monk was entertaining enough – but I’m not sure anything could quite have prepared us for our next meeting with a Burmese. Heading away from the Sule Paya, we were soon ambushed by a little old lady by the name of Ethel. Daw Ethel (who by her own admission talks a lot of blah blah blah) insisted we join her for tea, and so the five of us were soon perched on little stools by the side of the road, sharing tea and listening to a whole series of very entertaining monologues on subjects ranging from life in the city, to her childhood, and tips on travelling round the country. Ultimately she was trying to sell herself as a guide around the country – but lovely (and hysterical) as she was, the five of us all agreed that the blah blah blah would have left the five of us unable to get a word in edgeways for the rest of the trip so we regretfully declined, after buying her lunch for her time. (On a side note – I’d love to team her up with equally lovely-but-bonkersCynthia from Mexico and see what happened).

Yangonn, Myanmar

Quite a character


After wandering around admiring all the historic architecture, next stop was the market, to change some money on the black market (essential, as the official exchange rate is terrible). This required a trip to the main market, and wandering around asking various people about exhange rates, and then disappearing down an alleyway to do the deal – which involved tediously counting my way through hundreds of 1000 kyat notes to check I wasn’t being short-changed. As it turned out, my usual terrible currency luck continued – when we were there, the exchange rate was the worst its been in aaaages – although despite that, it still left me in the uncomfortable position of wandering around with three huge bricks of notes inside my rucksack.

We’d covered a fair bit of ground on foot by this point, so we were all starving. In typically adventurous tourist style, we shunned Burmese food and headed straight out for a curry at one of the numerous Indian restaurants in town (our subsequent experiences were to show that may not have been a bad move…). Suitably refuelled, we soon found ourselves abandoning our previous plans to head back to the hostel, and instead made our way up to the city’s highlight, the spectacular Shwedagon Paya.

Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Burma

Day....

Words really can’t quite do justice to it – it sits on top of a hill, dominating the city, and is pretty enormous. It’s reached by four different staircases on each side, and as we reached the top we were pretty blown away by the scale of it, with dozens of spires and domes, all encrusted in gold, and packed with local families and monks paying their respects. We hung around for a couple of hours, soaking up the atmosphere and trying to take it all in, and then admiring the changing colours as the sun set. Quite remarkable.

Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Burma

...and night

Of course by now it was dark and any thoughts of heading back went out of the window, and so we all hopped in a cab (five of us was a bit of a tight squeeze) and headed for a bar – which, being sunday night, was almost entirely empty, although predictably enough was showing a Spurs game. Regardless, we had a few drinks before piling into a bus back into town for a final few drinks at a street corner beer station by the Sule Paya, and then walking home through deserted straights to make it to bed around midnight.

Packed into a Yangon Taxi

Packed in a taxi

So my planned quiet start to my fortnight in Burma ended up being a 20 hour sightseeing marathon. But what a way to start – exploring a fascinating city on foot, meeting wonderful locals, seeing some great sights, and having a great time bonding with the four people who I was to end up spending the next two weeks with.

You can see all of my photos of Yangon here. Next stop – heading up to the hills (by way of a rather dramatic bus ride).

My luck runs out

Being mugged. Being in a bus crash. Getting kidnapped. Catching a horrible tropical disease. Earthquakes.

These are some of the many things that I worried about before heading off for a year of travel. Of course I should have realised that when the time came for my luck to run out that it would be my own stupidity that caused it – and end up sending me to hospital.

The day started pretty well – after an earlyish start, we had a beautiful boat ride across the Andaman sea to Ko Phi Phi. I was with my friend Jo from back home,and who’s working as a volunteer English teacher in Krabi at the moment, and we were on our way to meet another friend Nick, who was on holiday from England in Phuket.

Ko Phi Phi Don

Ko Phi Phi


The journey was lovely, as we passed a series of dramatic, limestone islands along the way. Soon enough we were at our destination, and met up with Nick at the harbour. We were picked up by someone from our hotel, and walked across to the other end of the town and up a long flight of stairs to our hotel. It was a bit of an effort getting up the hill in the midday heat – but at least I had the prospect of a lovely view to keep me motivated. That would turn out to be my undoing.

It only took a minute or two to check in, and we walked across to the room. I was really excited about seeing the view, so walked straight across the room and through the open glass door onto the balcony.

Except of course it wasn’t open. Looking back on it now, I don’t even remember the impact really, it happened so quickly. One minute I was walking across the room, the next I was standing on the balcony surrounded by shattered glass. That first moment of realisation seemed to last an eternity (that’ll be the shock then) before I gradually became aware of lots of shouting, people all around me, and then, finally, began to see blood everywhere.

It turns out the glass was very, very thin non-safety glass, and it had shattered into sharp shards that had sliced into my skin in various places. Before I really knew what was going on, a guy from the hotel had hoisted me onto his back, carried me down the stairs and popped me into a luggage trolley to wheel me back across the island to the hospital.

Wounds

The two biggest wounds

I’m so glad my friend Nick was with me (especially being someone I’ve known for so long), as he accompanied me the whole way, chatting away to keep my spirits up (and distract me) from the fact I was now aware that there was a fair amount of blood pouring down my arms and legs.

It must have been quite a sight – the streets of Ko Phi Phi are pretty narrow, and very crowded, so of course everyone was staring at me as we trundled past (bloody typical that the hospital turned out to be right at the other end of the island).

I was a bit concerned about what the hospital was going to be like – but I really needn’t have been. The place was pretty new, built since the tsunami, and within seconds of walking in I was already lying on a bed with five people around me cleaning my wounds. Within no time at all I was being dosed up with local anaesthetic, and stitched up in various places simultaneously (all the while with Nick joking away in the background), and best of all the room was right on the beach so I could distract myself by looking out onto a stunning view. You wouldn’t get that back home.

Being stitched up

Being stitched up

In no time at all I was back up and out on the beach – all in all I’d been on the island for not much more than an hour in total and I’d calmed down enough to take stock of the situation:

In total, I had 38 stitches (14 on the left forearm, 6 on the left hand, 8 on the right elbow, and 5 each on right knee and shin), plus a few butterfly stitched on my forehead and right leg, and a big bandage around a smaller wound on my left heel. With bandages over each wound I was doing quite a passable impression of a mummy on holiday.

To be honest, I was incredibly lucky – no glass went into my eyes, no ligaments were sliced through, no major marks on my face, and nothing on my back or sides that would have made sitting down or sleeping difficult. The staff at the hospital were incredibly efficient, friendly and professional, they really were superb. And luckily enough, while the wounds were big, they were all very very shallow, meaning they didn’t even really hurt (which is great as I am the biggest wimp in the world when it comes to pain).

Bandaged Geoff

Modelling my new beach wear

In the end it was pretty easy to laugh about soon afterwards (I really felt like a complete muppet, to be honest), and it soon became yet another great way to talk to new people (shame I’m not straight really as every girl in town wanted to stop and talk to me for the next few days to ask about what happened).

In the end it turned out to be inconvenient more than anything – I’d just arrived on one of the most stunning coastlines in the world, and I was now unable to swim, or snorkel, or dive. That pretty much put paid to my plans, so I had no choice but to cancel them and head up to Bangkok.

There was one thing that did really piss me off though – after having my brand new boardshorts nicked after two hours of wear in Bali, I bought another new pair in Singapore. I was wearing them for the first time that day, and of course the glass did a pretty good job of shredding those too. Typical.