A Travellerspoint blog

Pottering around Bangkok

Catching up on our ‘To Do’ list

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Bangkok, Thailand

As a frequently visited city I will keep the Blog of our time in Bangkok short. Much of the day was sent trying to send some of our many purchases back to the UK. With shippers arranged and the boxers loaded onto carts heading down the hotel corridor all was progressing well until they announced that Buddha images cannot be exported from Thailand. As this constituted at least half the shipment this could be considered a slight problem. Able to work around the problem for a few hundred dollars it was an easy decision to look for alternative, more specialist, shippers.

Duly found they would be able to pick up the following day. Being the weekend it was fortunate that Bangkok never truly sleeps, especially when there is money to be made.

Our evening was spent roaming the various night markets of the city and enjoying cocktails at the top of the Siam@Siam hotel. Whilst the view of the centre of Bangkok might not be as impressive as Lebua Tower their slightly cheaper cocktails more than compensated.

This was also the night I was asked to leave the Executive Lounge at hotel. It would seem that the Burmese longyi is not considered ‘smart casual’ apparel in Bangkok. After so many weeks in Myanmar this condemnation of their national dress would surely be a surprise to any visiting Burmese! Tomorrow evening I would have to wear long trousers. The first time in many weeks!

Posted by jamesh1066 15:41 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Thought to be transporting live vaccines across SE Asia

Secondhand cardboard box shopping in Yangon.

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Yangon, Myanmar to Bangkok, Thailand

Our only task for today was to complete packing of the many purchases we had made that had now arrived in Yangon. Shipped separately from various cities throughout Myanmar they had all arrived on time and as promised. However, cardboard boxes to consolidate this Aladdin’s cave of treasures into were, a little elusive. With promises that the centre of Yangon proffered a certain alley filled with secondhand cardboard box salesman we headed off in what many might consider a rather boring quest.

However, our search for boxes took us into a backstreet area of small fascinating shops and curious sights. Alongside more typical establishments such as jewelers and opticians were specialized shops retailing a variety of products of questionable importance to the general public. Some specialized in air ducting, some sold taps or faucets others a strange area of boxes marked in the Myanmar language with no visible symbols to aid with content translation.

However, as promised we did find our secondhand boxes. A curious husband and wife showed us a variety of boxes that might meet the vague dimensions we had signed to them. Paying rather more than one might imagine for used boxes we ended up with suitable packing material.

It was only after successfully packing our treasures that we realized that one of the boxes had carried live vaccines. This statement being loudly presented on the side of the box it was clear as we waited for check-in to open at Yangon airport that the majority of tourists seeing our great pile of luggage felt Trey and I were on a humanitarian mission, bringing urgently needed supplies to a needy world. I wonder if this was the reason we received such a hefty discount on our excess baggage fees. Whatever, the reason we made no complaints as we settled back to enjoy our short flight to Bangkok and the next phase of our southeast Asia adventure.

Bangkok proves to be as chaotic as ever, pulsating in the tropical heat and darkness that is typical of this area. Arriving in the late evening we settle into our suite overlooking the Chao Praya, ready for a day in the city tomorrow.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:39 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Chanting in taxis and avoiding Black Holes

Buddhist prayers and the perils of walking the sidewalks of Yangon

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Mt. Popa to Yangon, Myanmar

Departing at 4am, darkness still enveloped the jungle as we descended into the valley from our mountain top retreat. Our sporadic backseat taxi conversation halted, temporarily, whilst our driver recited his 5am prayers for an eerie thirty minutes. Apart from an initial concern that he might be praying for deliverance from some suicidal overtaking maneuver little punctuated the passing of our journey to Bagan airport, save the deliberate avoidance of a road block and toll charge. Essentially put in place by villages, possibly with some form of governmental authority, most taxi drivers we had encountered played a generally successful game of ignoring assertions to halt, swerving instead around brightly painted red and white barriers.

Reaching Bagan airport in the early hours of the morning the terminal was quite deserted. Yet, within twenty minutes, as pickup truck loads of employees arrived check-in counters were bustling and the process of transporting passengers to either Yangon, Mandalay or Heho underway.

We were heading to Yangon for, sadly, our last night in Myanmar. Driving into the once proud capital city little had changed since our departure a few weeks ago. Indeed, little appeared to have changed since the departure of the British many years before that. Yet, after our time in the north the sight of traffic – taxis, trucks, and cars – seemed a little strange. We had not seen such a volume of vehicles since leaving Yangon. Although, with gasoline harder to obtain outside of the city this was hardly a surprise.

With the main tourist sights of Yangon already covered we spent our last afternoon in the city re-visiting Scott Market purchasing those last minute must have souvenirs we could, in reality, easily afford to leave behind. As expected the mid-afternoon monsoon arrived promptly, sending us scurrying for cover in a rather salubrious American style doughnut shop.

Supper that evening consisted of an excellent Indian curry served in colonial splendor to the east of Shwedagon Paya. With a certain amount of sadness that we would be leaving this welcoming, beautiful country the next day we passed the remainder of our evening walking back to the hotel, carefully avoiding the many dark, watery holes that offered unwelcome surprises to any less than observant pedestrians that might pass by.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:05 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Attacked by monkeys whilst seeking enlightenment

Pilgrimage to Mt. Popa

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Bagan to Mt. Popa, Myanmar

Ready to depart by private taxi to Mt. Popa at 10am but with no sign of our guide we could only assume that the beer bottle excesses of the previous day were still impacting poor Phohtaoo and as such he would not be making the trip.

Cycling passed red brick temples the previous day it was impossible not to notice the prevalence of peanut and sesame crops planted throughout the area. As we left the plains behind and into more farming areas these two crops continued to dominate. As such, it was no surprise when some thirty minutes into our two hour journey to Mt. Popa that we stopped at a wayside bamboo built farm that appeared to refine both of these crops.

A very large pestle and mortar

A very large pestle and mortar

To the side of a large bamboo hut a harnessed ox circled around a two foot diameter mortar and pestel. Inside a large basket of peanuts (a standard unit of measure in Myanmar) was being ground into a brown-grey paste. At the base of the mortar a small dish collected the golden oil being crushed from the peanuts. This process would last for two hours. The result would be about four liters of peanut oil and a peanut mash, which when mixed with onion and garlic, and then deep fried would make a delicious sounding mid-morning snack. We were reliably informed that whilst many areas of Myanmar produce both peanut and sesame oil, Bagan produced the best. Holidaying Burmese would usually stop at one of the ten or fifteen similar stands in this area to purchase high quality oil, direct from source.

Cooking up the Palm sugar

Cooking up the Palm sugar

In addition, to oils the farm also harvested palm sugar. Expertly climbing a female palm tree (it had fruit whilst the male does not) the farmer swapped an earthenware pot dangling from the end of one of the palm trees stems for a presumable empty pot. Returning to earth we could see that the earthenware pot was filled with a yellow, sweet tasting liquor. This was the palm sugar, secreted continuously by the palm tree and as such available for harvest every two hours.

Fermented Palm sugar

Fermented Palm sugar

Whilst we drank this raw, tasty liquor it was in its fermented and distilled forms that it is typically sold. After harvesting the liquor it is boiled in large, wood fired woks until a thick syrup remains. Once cooled these are made into sweets, called Jakatta. These sweet treats are usually eaten when additional energy is required. Workers in the fields will take one before drinking water to provide a natural energy boost. Whilst these are sold they can also be mixed with water and yeast to produce a fermented liquor similar to beer. This sweet tasting drink with a flavor and appearance similar to Mead was very quaffable but in the early morning we resisted sampling more than a single shot glass of the amber liquid.

Distilling the Palm Sugar

Distilling the Palm Sugar

Naturally, this fermented liquid can also be distilled. The addition of heat produces a clear relatively smooth palm whiskey. Normally imbibed along with Jattaka and sesame seeds the mix of flavors was not unpleasant. Appropriate quantities of palm whiskey purchased we were soon back on the road heading towards the pinnacle of volcanic rock that is Mt. Popa. However, now we were also accompanied by Phohtaoo. After arriving a few minutes late at the hotel, to find we had already departed, he had obtained a lift from a friend with a scooter to catch up with us at the peanut oil farm.

Relaxing with freshly distilled Palm whiskey

Relaxing with freshly distilled Palm whiskey

Stopping en route at Popa village the quality and volume of fresh fruits and vegetables on display were testament to the fertility of this volcanic ash laden lands. Our hotel nestled near the summit of a neighboring hill overlooking Mt. Popa. Yet, with low clouds once again affecting visibility our view of the fabled mountain crowned with a golden Stupa resplendent monastery was somewhat obscured. Undaunted we were soon trekking through the jungle to the base of the mountain careful to avoid ‘large black spiders’ and ‘red snakes’ that Phohtaoo assured us were prevalent in this area. Relieved to reach the small village at the base of Mt. Popa without being attacked or poisoned by fang wielding creatures of the jungle, and having made a strong mental note to take a taxi back to the hotel at the end of our walk, we stopped first for lunch before commencing our ascent of this 2,700ft column of volcanic rock. With Phohtaoo ordering a $2 Myanmar curry that was accompanied by a myriad of side dishes ranging from recognizable onions and chili to strange look dishes of who knows what, it was a little while before we were ready to begin our climb.

Mt. Popa in the clouds

Mt. Popa in the clouds

Strangely the elderly ladies sitting in our restaurant all appeared to be carrying catapults and small round lumps of rock. Wondering at first if this was some strange geriatric fusion of bowls and archery it became readily apparent that this was to deter the many monkeys, prevalent in this region, from climbing on roofs or approaching the restaurants and market stalls of the village. As we sat and ate troops of monkeys, resembling the Barbary Apes of Gibraltar ran up walls, loudly announcing their presence on the ill conceived but extremely noisy corrugated iron roofs that provided shelter for the majority of the village dwellings. As families of monkeys jumped across the roofs, the loud reverberations meant that their presence could not be overlooked or ignored.

Not overly friendly

Not overly friendly

Cooling assisted engine

Cooling assisted engine

Mt. Popa appears from the clouds

Mt. Popa appears from the clouds

Beginning our thirty minute hike to the mountain top monastery we were warned to tie down or strap on anything lose about our persons. This time the potential pickpockets would be simians only slightly less evolved than those pickpockets we had already encountered in Mongolia and Papua New Guinea. Walking, as is typical, barefoot to the monastery we were also to be watchful of monkey poop that might affect our progress. Whilst the spaces between roof and walls were filled with razor wire this did little to keep the monkeys out of the covered walkways that led to the top of the mountain. Similarly, with roofs of corrugating iron the frequent jumping of monkeys on this noisy surface gave more than a passable effect that the entire mountain was about to fall, after millions of years happy existence.

To help ward off the more than curious and at times aggressive monkeys an old technology was utilized. A humble backscratcher slapped into the palm of one’s hand or on a stainless steel railing was relatively successful at removing all but the most stubborn of monkey from our path. As we ascended the mountain a variety of Buddha and nat shrines were passed. The latter were important as the Two Brother nats that we had celebrated at the Spirit Festival in Mandalay - Min Gyi and Min Galay – were, according to legend born on this sacred mountain. Peering into a small cave, marked by a golden rock, we could see nothing but money and thrown offerings but this was, we were assured, the finally resting place of the two naughty nats.

With the cloud having lifted before we began our ascent of the mountain the summit provided panoramic views towards the Plains of Bagan and the distant Ayeyarwady river. As with all tourist sites in Myanmar we did not have to wait long before local tourists, this time from Mon State, were eager to have their picture taken with us, well Trey! With Golden Stupas and a curious female monkey in the background Trey posed as a procession of local tourists posed for their pictures to be taken, giggling after the fact and at having shaken our hands.

Famous Trey poses for photos

Famous Trey poses for photos

Looking down on Popa village

Looking down on Popa village

Old temple Pagoda's were being replaced

Old temple Pagoda's were being replaced

Hanging out

Hanging out

Just as with our ascent monkeys had to be dodged and guarded against throughout our descent. Rounding one corner a clearly quite mad vendor was happily selling a favorite monkey treat – peanuts – to those making the ascent. This encouraged large numbers of the creatures to congregate in ever increasing numbers, eager to grab the paper packets from quivering hands. More concerned about cameras being mistaken for packets of peanuts we made the descent through this chaotic throng. Obviously, confusing my backpack with a packet of peanuts I soon found one monkey jumping on my back only to be swatted off by the trusty back scratcher. It was with some relief that we made the ascent, in remarkably quick time, with all our cameras and accoutrements in order.

Count the monkeys!

Count the monkeys!

Stalls line the start of our ascent

Stalls line the start of our ascent

From there the floor of a vaguely covered truck took us the ten minute ride back to our hotel, avoiding the ordeal of a second jungle trek and a soaking from the now threatening afternoon monsoon. Returning to veritable isolation at our remote, but comfortable hotel, we had few options for supper but found ourselves retiring early, ready for an early four o’clock start in the morning.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:02 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Supper in the fourteenth century

More temples and a lovely meal with our new friends family

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Bagan, Myanmar

En route to the local Post Office, our guide Phohtaoo takes us to see his modest family home. With a single room and a large elevated sitting area in the front yard Phohtaoo lives with his mother, father and three sisters. Embarrassed by the palm leaf roof that leaks water he proudly shows us a prized monk painting and invites us to an unexpected supper, with his family, that evening. Charmed we readily accept and begin questioning what we need to bring to such an occasion. Stupidly our comments on whether we need to wear ‘black tie’ require significant explanation. Dinner jackets are not readily seen in Myanmar.

Golden stupas litter the plains

Golden stupas litter the plains

Postcard stamps purchased for the nearby Post Office we are once again heading back to the temples. With New Bagan a relatively small town and Old Bagan a shell of itself after the Governments forced relocation of the village in the 1970s (to what became New Bagan) Nyaung U is the only town of any size in the area.

Our friendly nats from Mandalay - Min Gyi and Min Galay

Our friendly nats from Mandalay - Min Gyi and Min Galay

On the outskirts of Nyanug U we stop to visit one of the most visible Stupas in all of Bagan with its glittering down. Visiting the beautiful golden zedi of Shwezigon Paya we are reminded of a similar sounding namesake in Yangon. Importantly the zedi is also home to the thirty-seven pre-Buddhist nats that were officially endorsed by Bamar monarchy. Phohtaoo purchases gold leaf in order that we can make an offering to the temple. Placing the thin leaves upon the Stupa we are reminded of our visit to the gold leaf workshop in Mandalay and that each leaf has required six hours of pounding to achieve this thinness.

The Nyanug U market

The Nyanug U market

In the centre of Nyanug U the main market has a wide variety of fresh food and household ‘what-nots’ for sale. With plenty of vendors trying to sell us unwanted postcards, souvenirs et al we soon cycle on to a boozy but expensive lunch on the edge of Ayeyarwady.

Inside one of the temples

Inside one of the temples

Intricate temple paintings adorn some of the temple walls

Intricate temple paintings adorn some of the temple walls

With plenty more temples to visit we eagerly return to the now familiar sandy, dirt lanes, cycling between temples such as the 12th century Dhammayangyi Pahto – the largest in Bagan and Sulamani Pahto built at the latter end of Bagan’s height of power in an increasingly sophisticated style that provides for more light inside the temple and arguably the best brickwork in Bagan.

En route we revist our statue carver from the day before. Statues carved and dry he now demonstrates the aging process were the statues are once again fired, covered in a green pulp made from a special leaf and then covered in ash. Phohtaoo explains how tourists are never shown this process as the end result are sold as 'antiques'. The experience provides a fascinating insight into this curious endeavour as the secrecy around the process is emphasized. We were never to learn the name of the leaf used to create the all important green glue!

Warmth and soot were required to start the aging process

Warmth and soot were required to start the aging process

Firing the statues

Firing the statues

The firing caused great interest

The firing caused great interest

Our statues are covered in green paste from a special leaf and ash to provide an aging effect

Our statues are covered in green paste from a special leaf and ash to provide an aging effect

Aging the statues

Aging the statues

Onlookers eager to learn the secret

Onlookers eager to learn the secret

Awaiting the statues to dry

Awaiting the statues to dry

By late afternoon we have visited all the main temples of Bagan. Approaching something close to temple overload we say a brief adieu to Phohtaoo over yet another beer before changing for dinner with his family that evening - a meal which turned out to be delightful.

With his entire family in attendance we decide upon pink and sparkly stationary for his two year old sister and cold beers for the adults, as a small gift. Certainly, for Phohtaoo this proved to be ideal, with neither his mother nor father drinking. Indeed, Phohtaoo confirms later in the evening that this is only the second time he has drunk in his entire life. Tucking into both cold beers and a delicious peanut soup, that his mother served, we were soon discussing life in Myanmar, the temples of Bagan and any manner of subjects that might arise over dinner with friends.

Surprisingly, the subject of Phohtaoo’s age provided greatest interest. After a slightly drunken assertion, confirmed by his mother, that he was born in 1350 we were keen to understand the secret of his twenty-something good looks. Of course, our discussion needed to account for the thekkayit, the main calendar still in use in Myanmar today. Introduced by a Burmese King the calendar in Myanmar is 638 years behind the Christian year count. Therefore, whilst the current year is 2011, to the west, in Myanmar it is only 1372 - the fourteenth century. There was to be no ‘Fountain of Youth’ for us to explore.

Relaxing with our hospitable hosts

Relaxing with our hospitable hosts

Whilst Phohtaoo had to translate for the rest of his family we were able to express our gratitude for all the food that followed our Peanut soup. Delicious chicken curry, tomato and peanut salad and sautéed vegetables followed in ridiculously copious amounts. With no possibility of eating all the food proffered we tried as best we could to demonstrate how much we had enjoyed this taste of ‘real’ Myanmar food.

Unfortunately, for Phohtaoo he was not particularly familiar with alcohol and especially the 7% Mandalay beer that we had developed a taste for. With none of the family eating or drinking his gentle intoxication, augmented by our drinking earlier in the day, soon became apparent to both ourselves and the family. A variety of amusing sobriety test passes followed before a guitar materialized and he was lulling us with greatest hits of Westlife and John Denver.

Slightly amazed that we had found our way through the darkened backstreets of New Bagan to his house, earlier in the evening, Phohtaoo, along with his sister were determined to show us the shortcut back to our hotel, as we offered our thanks for excellent food and a lovely evening. With Phohtaoo swaying slightly the assistance of his sister was vital. Yet we were grateful for a wonderful, sociable evening. It was just unfortunate that in the morning we would depart for Mt. Popa and whilst Phohtaoo was supposed to accompany us an expected hangover might negatively influence that plan!

This hotel also thought that we were on honeymoon

This hotel also thought that we were on honeymoon

Posted by jamesh1066 15:05 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

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