Java

I arrived in Jakarta to start my journey east across Java and was met instantly by the mix of concrete and skyscrapers that make up this vast megalopolis. There are no green areas to the city, no parks, and the city’s attempt at a central square is a square kilometre of concrete, with a concrete tower rising out of its centre. This being said, I wasn’t in Jakarta long enough to pass a proper judgement, and was largely based in the central area. I managed to spend an hour or so in the national museum before closing time and the huge amount of displays about the different islands and cultures of this huge country certainly got me excited about the possibilities of what I could see and do during the rest of my trip east across Indonesia. 

  

My first stop after Jakarta was at the small beach town of Pangandaran located in the south of West Java. It took nearly a full day of train and bus journeys to get me there so on my first full day I chilled on the beach, watched the surfers and found a local guy to give me a surf lesson a few days later. He also happened to be selling the winner of best chocolate and banana pancakes 2015 (according to me) so all in all a good find! 

On the tip of the bay of Pangandaran is a national park which is home to a number of wild animals. When I arrived I found the price of entry had increased from 7000 Rupiah to 320000 Rupiah since my lonely planet book had last been updated, so I decided to give it a miss. I’ve already seen loads of monkeys on my trip and come sunset, six wild deer ran down the beach in front of me, miraculously not running into anyone as the beach had become packed in the evening as the locals rolled down avoiding the intense heat of the sun during the day. As the locals did start to come out, this meant that it was time for our celebrity status to start up as everyone wanted a photo with the few white people who were on the beach. 

On day 2 I took a trip to the nearby green valley and green canyon. The green valley was a lush river flowing through a dense forest area, littered with waterfalls and small cliffs to jump from. The largest of these was apparently 7m high (said the locals) but definitely felt higher on the way down! We took a boat ride along the river winding through the green canyon, spotting river dragons crawling along at the foot of the cliffs rising from either side of the river. On the way home we had just enough time to stop off at the turtle sanctuary – a temporary home for sick and injured turtles, where they are brought to recover before being released back into the ocean. Some of the turtles were huge, I picked a medium sized one up and could barely hold it. Hopefully I’ll get to see some turtles in their natural habitat before my trip is over. The day was rounded off with a few Bintangs (the main beer of Indonesia) around a fire on the beach. A good day all round. 

So the next day was my much anticipated surf lesson, and it started well as I got standing up on the board pretty quick. Unfortunately I started getting way too gnarly, way too soon, and split the nose of the board which ended my day early. It was probably for the best as I was already exhausted after a couple of hours fighting against the waves, which left me drinking coconuts in the sun for the rest of the afternoon. Not a bad alternative but I think I have some way to go before I can call myself a surfer. 

   

   

  

     

From Pangandaran was an 8 hour bus ride across to the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java. After a quiet first night I set my alarm for 3:30am as I hoped to get to the temple of Borobudur in time for sunrise. As it happens we were just too late in arriving, but saw the sunrise over the mountains in a quiet area way outside of the city. The temple was much quieter than I had imagined, especially if I draw comparison to Angkor Wat, as Borobudur is revered in the same way and is possibly the most revered Buddhist temple in the world. It’s too hard to try to describe how I felt with the early morning sun shining over the temple and the surrounding area, so I’ll the photos below do the talking. 

Prambanan temple is closer to the city and is aligned in such a way that the sun sets directly over the temple, seen from an impressive, long entrance path. So after escaping the mid afternoon heat in the pool I headed on to my second temple of the day. Prambanan was flattened by an earthquake in the 16th century and has been under a rebuilding process for years which is still incomplete. It was weird seeing the old designs of the temple being rebuilt and restored and looking much newer. I guess we’re used to seeing ruined remains or structures that have been warn away over time, but I guess this gives an insight into what the temples would have looked like when they were originally built all those years ago. 

  
    
    

  
I didn’t have any more time to spend in Yogyakarta, even though I more or less had the whole city to explore. The next morning saw another early start before we commenced a 12 hour bus ride to Mount Bromo in the east of Java. Another 3:30am alarm call later, I was stood at the highest point of the mountain waiting for the sun to rise, unfortunely I was joined by about 500 other tourists who were all squeezed like sardines into a tiny viewing platform. Luckily I’m tall. And even more luckily it was a perfectly clear night. When I arrived at the peak, the magnificent display of the stars were on show in an area well away from any unnatural light. I hadn’t seen the stars like this in such a long time, if ever. And then came the sunrise. After so many failed sunrise viewings in other areas of Asia, I was wondering if the early morning would be worth it, but in truth, it was completely mind blowing. 

   
    
   
  
I decided 3:30am wasn’t early enough for me, so the next night after I’d arrived at Mount Ijen, I set my alarm for 1am. There was good reason for this though, not just madness through lack of sleep over the last few days. Mount Ijen is one of only two volcanos in the world (the other being in Costa Rica) where a burning blue flame can be seen in the crater due to the chemical content of the volcano. As it is not very intense, you need to be there in the middle of the night.

After all of the recent early starts, when I arrived I wasn’t entirely sure if I was dreaming or if this was reality. First of all, we had a 3km trek up the volcano. As I looked round, the clouds were below me, illuminated only by the light of a perfect full moon in a clear sky. If anything, the blue flame of the volcano was quite disappointing, a small flame largely obscured by the sulphuric smoke pouring out of the mountain. But still this was nature at its most weird and wonderful and was an incredible experience. 

We stayed in the crater as the sun rose, and saw the sky slowly fill with orange above the warm lake at the centre of the crater. Throughout this visit, we made way for the workers, mining sulphur from the volcano. They take loads of up to 130kg on their backs to the top of the mountain, to be wheeled back down to where there is road access. Probably one of the hardest jobs in the world, especially given the harmful gases and dust they have to breathe in constantly. I tried lifting a 90kg weight and it was almost too much to lift, let alone carry to the top of the mountain. 

As I left for Bali, I reflected on the amazing things I’d seen in Java, and wished I could have spent longer here, but visa deadlines are visa deadlines and Indonesia is a big country! If the memories don’t last me a lifetime then the stench of sulphur and dust from the volcano that are now embedded in my rucksack and clothes certainly will. 

   
    
    
   

Sumatra

Three years ago, I looked out of my office window in Woking to see a Greenpeace protest unfolding outside the front of our office complex. Their message was to raise awareness over the destruction of the Sumatran rain forests, which one of the companies in our office complex apparently had a hand in.

Back then, I had no idea where Sumatra was, but now I find myself here today. To title this post “Sumatra” is a bit misleading, as I’ve only spend a short amount of time here, visiting areas towards the North East of this colossal island. Sumatra is only Indonesia’s third largest island, but, to put it in perspective, could fit the whole of Great Britain inside twice over. And this is just one of approximately 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia.

I’d left Myanmar over land, travelling to Bangkok before flying to Sumatras largest city, Medan. This whole process took almost 40 hours and left a lot of down time waiting at bus and air terminals. During this time I began to read about visiting Indonesia, places to go and visa requirements and found out that it was advisable to have an onward flight booked to avoid any sort of hassle on arrival. I’d already risked this in Myanmar and things had been fine and without knowing a date or a place I’d be leaving from, booking an onward flight is a difficult thing. But partly out of boredom and partly out of wanting to escape the need for a bribe at Medan, I spent a whole £12 on a flight to Malaysia (that I wouldn’t be taking anyway) just in case. Needless to say I arrived at Medan and the visa process was quick and easy and I found I’d just wasted £12…

After a delayed flight I arrived at Medan around 11pm, desperate for some sleep after an awful journey on a night bus the previous day. However, it took me a while to find a guest house with some availability, and I had managed to get myself an invitation to a wedding party the next day before even finding a place to sleep. So after finally finding a hostel, and sleeping for 12 hours, I went off to join in the traditional celebrations the next day with a group of people who had turned me away from a full guest house the night before. It was interesting to see the traditional ceremony, although I had to wear long trousers in 40 degree heat and had no idea what was going on for most of the time, but I still ended up dancing with the brides mum, the music only stopping briefly during the day for the prayer call from the nearby mosque. After the wedding my new friends took me on a family trip to the docks followed by dinner in town afterwards. A ridiculously friendly bunch.

The next day I set off on a trip to the village of Bukit Lawang, located next to the Gunung Leuser national park on the fringes of a vast jungle area. I’d signed up to a three day trek through the jungle, this being the place to go in Sumatra to see Orang Utans in their natural habitat. Although they are not kept in a sanctuary or housed near feeding stations, the orang Utans here are classed as semi wild, but still, seeing them swing through the jungle trees was an incredible experience, and their familiarity with humans means you can get right up close with them. Sometimes too close – as the famous orang utan ‘Mina’ chased us through a small portion of the jungle (her territory) only letting us move on when distracted by bananas and pineapples.

Over the 2 nights we camped in 2 separate locations, both by the river which flows through the jungle. The river was our source of drinking water for the time we were away, made fit for drinking by first boiling on our camp fire stoves. At night, we pretty much had to sleep on the bare ground with just a thin sheet. Not the most comfortable nights sleep ever but it almost added to the ‘jungle’ experience.

On the last day we took a leisurely ride back to Bukit Lawang on a makeshift raft made by tying several rubber rings together. This was a great way to finish as we bobbed along the river and through some small rapids back to civilisation.


  

The next day, I journeyed south from Bukit Lawang to Lake Toba with the same group of people I’d trekked with. This was a peaceful, relaxing spot with some stunning scenery as you wind down through the mountains towards the lake.

We stayed on an island within the lake, samosir island – nearly 60km across. It was easy to explore on some scooters though and we made a full day out to the other side of the island. The inhabitants of Samosir are descendants from the Batak tribe, an old cannibalistic civilisation whose traditions have fortunately died away somewhat today. We were able to learn about their old ways, see their traditional buildings and at one point, even join in with a traditional dance.

On the way home, we decided to go against the locals advice and ride over the top of the island – throw the mountainous jungle terrain (they said we shouldn’t go this way, not that we can’t). At first this road was very pleasant, taking us way up high to vantage points overlooking the whole island, and then on to a lake within the island within the lake within the island – wow. But the fun was short lived as the road soon disappeared and was replaced with a combination of mud and rocks. When we finally got back to a proper road and managed to refuel, we found out that the locals who have lived on the island their whole lives have never taken that route. Which I guess gives us some special knowledge that not even the locals have!


 We survived the ordeal though and soon I was travelling on to my final stop on my short tour round North Eastern Sumatra, the town of Berastagi. It was the 17th of August – Indonesian Independence Day, this year being the 70th anniversary. I’d originally planned to try to get to Jakarta to see the celebrations but plans had changed, and I was expecting a quiet day on the roads whilst the celebrations went on elsewhere. However, I was wrong, and as we drove through small towns and villages I found out that the roads were exactly where the celebrations were taking place, with marches and parades going on throughout the morning and afternoon. This meant diversions through narrow country dirt tracks with vans and minibuses going in either direction along these single track roads. What should have been a three hour trip took six, and was topped off when I had to get out and push not only a motorcyclist who had got stuck in the mud going up a hill, but shortly after that our own bus needed the same treatment.

I arrived in Beristagi to see the back end of the celebrations – the parades ending and marching off out of town again, a community singing and dance performance at the park and finally a game to see which group of people could make it to the top of a greased pole to win a selection of prizes.

There are two volcanos around the area of Beristagi – sinabung (which is currently erupting) and Sibayak. So I chose to trek up Sibayak. It was quite a cloudy day with the views over the surrounding area being somewhat obscured, but the views down over the mountain itself and into the ‘crater’ we’re pretty incredible and made the 5 hour round trip totally worthwhile, even if the strong smell of sulphur is still lingering in my nostrils.

There is plenty more of Sumatra to be explored but I think I have seen some of the highlights. I’m currently sat at the airport waiting to catch a flight to Jakarta amazed that I survived the bus journey back to Medan alive, but am looking forward to exploring the next island, Java, as I begin working east across Indonesia.


  

Yangon – The Golden Rock – Hpa-An

I finished my trip in Myanmar towards the South of the country, starting with its largest city, Yangon. I arrived early in the morning, fresh off another night bus and actually saw the first sunshine I’d seen in weeks. I was staying in a hostel in the central downtown area, and took the chance of having nice weather for a change to visit the Central Park which is also home to the independence monument – a timely reminder of the countries independence from the British in 1947.

There’s not a whole lot to do in the city in terms of site seeing, but more in the sense of soaking up the atmosphere. There are busy, narrow streets, filled with street vendors and pop up market stalls, vast colonial buildings and a much more personable feel to the city than I’d found in Mandalay. I took all of this in whilst walking up towards the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest and most revered pagoda in Myanmar. Of course when I was almost halfway there the rain started up again, so I turned round and waited for the next day to make the visit a few kilometres north of downtown.

The next day I found some friends to go to the pagoda with, so it was probably for the best that I’d waited the day before. We headed into the city armed with cameras and found much more of interest in terms of the contrasting wealth and decay in he city’s buildings, streets and people. After a visit to the pagoda (we weren’t that impressed) we went to the nearby park – the largest one in Yangon, to find lakes green with algae and rubbish, and a lot of construction work around the whole area. It was quite disappointing when we were looking for a peaceful haven within Yangon, but fit with gritty feel of the city.

Downtown Yangon has been hit hard by the rain recently with many streets right in the centre flooded. It doesn’t stop people wading through water half way up their legs to get the the night markets and street food, but I noticed that not as many stalls were open as the previous night when the rains hadn’t been so heavy. In order to take a break from the rain we went in search of an ‘English’ style pub. It felt like I’d walked back into London with the way the place was decorated. There was English football on the TV, and they’d made the English experience even more authentic by pricing beers the same as back home…so we left pretty quickly.

  
    
    
 The next day I jumped on a bus to take me to Kyaikto, South East from Yangon, and from there up to the village of Kinpun – “base camp” for visiting the golden rock. The golden rock is another famous Buddhist site, this one being truly breathtaking to behold. It’s a giant boulder, almost 10m in height, balanced delicately at the top of a mountain overlooking the valley below. Over the years it has withstood many earthquakes and extreme weather conditions, and in high season, flocks of Buddhist make the pilgrimage to this holy site in order to show their devotion to Buddha, worshipping and encrusting the rock with gold leaf paper.

You can either walk up the hill (7 miles, 4 hours) or take a truck – a modified lorry with wooden bench seats which leaves when full to capacity (approx 40 people). This takes only 45 minutes to reach the top, and a lot less effort. The driver clearly thought he was Sebastian Loeb, tearing round corners, flying over peaks and rollers in the road and being extremely happy to stamp on the accelerator and brakes (on the way down it felt like we were on a roller coaster with everyone gripping firmly onto the railings of the bench in front).

At the top, the clouds were setting in for the day, blocking off what I’m told is a spectacular view of the rock over looking the mountain and countryside below. The clouds did give an extra sense of mystique to the sacred place, but I think it really lacked the atmosphere that would come along with the hundreds of pilgrims earlier on in the year. The only real downside was the face that someone had decided to build the worlds ugliest building right next to the rock, meaning every photo was doomed to having this ghastly eye sore next to this remarkable sight.

  
    
    
 It was only a few hours from Kinpun on to my final stop in Myanmar – Hpa-An. This was another area of the country that had been badly effected by the floods, and due to the miles and miles of flat country side, there was no where for the water to go. The countryside was beautiful, so green and with karst mountains rising up from the ground in every direction you looked. But the impact of the floods was apparent when visiting a pagoda which is usually a viewpoint out over the river and on to the mountains.

Instead, this pagoda had become a shelter to the hundreds of families from nearby areas who’s homes were now underwater, many of which I think we had driven past on the way to the town.

We saw more of the floods the next day with a trip out to the country side to visit the many caves and religious sites. The first of which required wading through water that at points was waste deep. Each cave we visited had many statues of Buddha and even large carvings etched into the rock faces. In one area, a total of 1121 statues line the road and stretch way off into the distance infront of you.

Hpa-an was definitely one of my highlights of Myanmar. I’d originally not even planned on visiting is country, but ended up staying for three unforgettable weeks. It will be interesting to see how the country adapts to the boom of tourism over the coming years, and this was for sure a great time to go to experience the authenticity of this country which up to now is still relatively untouched by backpackers and western travellers.

  
    
    
    

Bagan

The temple plains of Bagan are probably Myanmar’s most famous site, and for me this was a trip I’d been looking forward to since entering the country.

The Kingdom of Bagan was at its height between the 11th and 13th centuries. During this time, the Kings sanctioned the construction of over 4000 pagodas, in an area of land approximately 12km square. The Bagan empire ended around the year 1287 as the Mongols gradually took over the land, and subsequently many pagodas deteriorated after abandonment. Over the years, many earthquakes have added to the ruins but today, over 2000 pagodas still remain.

I arrived in the middle of the night on another thrilling night bus and found a place to sleep for a few more hours in the town of Nyaung U which lies a few km north of Old Bagan and the temple plains. I’d been comtemplating heading straight out to try to see the sunrise over the numerous pagodas which I’ve been assured is a spectacular sight, however, given my recent lack of success with sunrises due to heavy cloud, and the fact that it was raining at the time, I decided this time to give it a miss.

The easiest way to get around the temple plains is to hire an e-bike – a converted bicycle with an electric motor slapped on wherever it will fit. These looked about as safe and reliable as they actually were (not very). But riding these bikes into the plains for the first time was remarkable. The first pagodas you see are tiny, the number you see gradually builds as does their size, and before you know it you are completed surrounded with vast stupas rising out of the ground in every direction that you look.

Most of the pagodas are quite small – maybe one or two storeys in height, and with a stupa on top of that. But the larger ones are truly breathtaking (from the outside anyway, the insides are largely dull and uninspiring). Many have been dated by archaeologists, and you can see the progression of their construction skills as they moved through the years, with the later ones boasting impressive arches, brickwork and intricate design details.

You can only get to the top of a few pagodas (and there is also a newly built tower which is part of a hotel complex which you can pay further for the privilege to go up) but the views from the top are like nothing else you’ll ever see.

Over the days, we had a few (expected) failed sunset viewings and a few (expected) problems with the e-bikes – these involved pedalling halfway home, and breaking down twice on the outskirts of town trying to go out on my third and final day. There were times with (expected) heavy rain which would last for hours and hours, the only things to do in town were to drink beer and play a few card games. But despite these minor negatives, Bagan lived up to everything I hoped that it would be, and I think in time to come I will return in the dry season when the famous balloon rides over the temple plains are in operation, to see this incredible sight from a whole new angle.

  
    
    
  

Shan State

My trip into Shan State, a region in the east of Myanmar, started in the north of their territory in a town called Hsipaw. The Shan are an ethnic minority descending from the Mongols who settled in this land some 4000 years ago. This minority makes up a total of around 9% of Myanmar’s total population.

Hsipaw is a very laid back town, situated amongst some beautiful countryside as you weave up towards the mountains north east of Mandalay. It’s a popular tourist destination due to the opportunity to join guided treks through the mountain scenery to spend time in the local villages.

I chose to join a 2 day trek, with a 1 night home stay in the village of Pankam, some 15km from Hsipaw. It doesn’t sound like a long way, but the first day was spent almost entirely climbing uphill in the sweltering heat. The sun only getting lost behind the clouds for a brief period whilst the heavens opened, ensuring that first, we were able to cool off from the sun, and then second, that despite our ponchos and waterproofs, we were all soaked. The heavy rain of recent weeks had turned parts of the dirt tracks and earthen paths to solid mud, making for an interesting few days of trekking.

All the problems we encountered due to the weather were totally worthwhile enduring, as we scaled to hill paths and ridges with some truly breathtaking views down through the country side. The home stay was a chance to get to know the locals and find out more about the country and what it means to them. We talked about Shan heritage, way of life in the village and of course about the politics of the country and of the upcoming general election. Everyone seems hopeful that they will finally start to see some change, but only time will tell if a democracy can emerge.

The day after finishing the trek, I went back out into the countryside to see what else Hsipaw had to offer. I took a bike as far along a narrow country path as I could, before I was forced to abandon it because of the heavy mud and also due to the lack of working brakes, especially going down some steep, rocky sections of path. This left me with several kilometres of trekking through thick mud, as my destination, a waterfall, was on the other side of some flooded marshland. All this trekking on my ‘day off.’

As usual, this was totally worth it again and after then climbing up through some thick crop plantations, I found myself in a pool to cool off from the heat at the foot of a spectacular, large streaming waterfall. It was like no other waterfall I’d seen though, as even with the height and steepness with with the water fell, it almost came down in slow motion, trickling over a rocky cliff face. In the other direction, I had more incredible views down over the valley towards Hsipaw.


  
    
 That night, I took a bus to the South of Shan State. What I noticed through my intermittent sleeping was that in order to safely get us down the dark, narrow and winding mountain paths, the bus crew was having to get out of the bus, guide the driver round the bends by torchlight, run along side the bus to the next bend and repeat. It felt remarkable safe and smooth, but was a strange sight to see this procession of a number of buses with the same routine snaking off into the distance down below.

I reached Kalaw in the middle of the night. This sleepy town was once an old retreat loved by the Brits due to its cool temperatures way up in the hills. There’s not a whole lot to do in this town, but it was a stop off before I embarked on yet another trek (I can’t get enough) to the Inle lake.

Whilst in town, I did stumble upon a local football tournament, with 4 teams from the area competing for the title. The whole village seemed to have turned out, which I thought was weird because it was early on a Thursday afternoon. I guess convention work hours don’t exist as they do at home though. I struggled through watching one match of very questionable quality. The teams were dressed in Tottenham and Arsenal kits, but soon both ran around in different shades of brown as the overgrown, muddy, heavily puddled pitch took its toll on the game. It ended up as a 6-0 win to one of the brown teams, with an indifference to the offside rule and a goal coming directly from an inswinging corner being the two particularly memorable moments from the match.

At full time I was taken for a beer with a few locals, but couldn’t bring myself to return to watch any more matches.

So the following morning I set off on my 3 day trek to the Inle lake. Over these 3 days, it rained the entire time. I’m sure there were some nice views along the way, not that I managed to see them as they were either masked by the thick clouds, or I was watching my feet to ensure I didn’t slip in the mud. I did the trek with a really fun group of people though which, despite the weather, made it another incredible experience. I guess we either had to laugh or cry to endure the rain, but together we managed to preserve some sanity.

One of the highlights of the trek was sleeping in a monastery in a small village in the middle of nowhere. This impressive complex was a welcome sight when we desperately needed somewhere dry and warm to stay on the second night. Other memorable things to note was the food – we had a chef who kept overtaking us on his motorbike (he never stopped to give us a lift even in the pouring rain) who always had plenty of amazing (and importantly piping hot) food waiting for us at our stops 3 times per day – also being woken up a 4am each morning by roosters and of course the cheap bottles of local rum we found, which may have also played its part in keeping our sanity.

But I suppose all of this is the risk you take when you decide to go trekking in the wet season. Thankfully the great guide, and the great group of people I was with made this an unforgettable experience for the right reasons.

The trek concluded at the South West side of the Inle Lake. We had to get to a town in the North, and the best way to do that was by boat. But as you can probably guess by now, it was raining for the duration of the hour long boat ride, which of course had no cover. More fun. But the boat ride allowed us to see the local fishermen at work, which is the iconic picture of lake, as the fishermen manage to fish with their nets whilst standing at the back of the boat on one leg, paddling with the other. An amazing sight which I was unable to get on camera due to the heavy rain…

On the east side of the lake we found a winery which we just couldn’t resist seeing. I was pleased to do sample some wines, especially as I hadn’t tasted wine for some time now, however, I was with a group of Italians who probably had a more sophisticated palate than mine, and apparently the Myanmar wine just wasn’t up to scratch. I thought it was alright.

And then came the final day. And the morning greeted us with the joyous sight of sunshine peaking through the clouds. At the sight of this we jumped on some bike and started pedalling through the countryside in search of a nice market we’d been told about. It would apparently take around 2 hours to reach the market on bikes, and, predictably, after the first hour passed, it started raining. Heavily. After the second, miserable hour, we asked for directions. The market was still another hour away. After the third hour we arrived at a familiar looking town, the town we’d taken the boat from just 2 days ago but were too wet and cold to take any notice of the name. What’s more is that we arrived as the market was closing. A complete comedy of errors, but a lot of laughter and a nice chocolate pancake meant that it wasn’t all bad for that day. We paid a truck driver to take us back to town with our bikes as we’d had plenty enough rain.

I should add that at this point, unbeknown to us at the time due to our loss of contact with the the rest of the world on our trek into the wilderness (I’m writing this a week or so after it happened), Myanmar was on the verge of being declared in a national state of emergency due to flooding and that the rain and misery was in no way restricted just to this region of Shan State. Infact, this was (and continues to be) one of the least effected areas in the country, as disastrous conditions left over from a typhoon off the coast of India are having a huge impact particularly on the west coast.

The weather conditions on the second half of my trip through Shan state couldn’t be helped, but resulted in experiences that I’ll never forget, and all for positive reasons (believe it or not!).

Mandalay

Until recently, Myanmar/Burma (what to call this country with respect to its tricky politics and turbulent history is a whole different topic, which I hope to tackle in the near future) was considered a Pariah state, only truely opening to tourism following the dissolution of the military junta in 2011, a consequence of the previous years general election – their first election in 20 years. It was quite an impulse decision for me to come here, the main reasons to get off the hectic tourist trails of Vietnam and Cambodia, and prompted by good feedback I’d heard of this country whilst traveling.

I flew in to Mandalay, and the first thing that struck me was the friendliness of the Burmese nationals. I think this is the only place I’ve ever been where I’ve been afforded a smile at immigration control! A few signs of the developing nature of this country were evident early on however – withdrawing money from the new ATMs, I’d heard ATMs were hard to come by in Myanmar, so was best to withdraw big chunks of money at a time. The maximum I could withdraw was approximately $250, or 300,000Kyat. What I didn’t realise was that the maximum note denomination (or the maximum I’ve come across so far) is 5,000Kyat. This left me with a wad of bills far too big for my wallet which then required stashing all over myself and my bags. Next, when I tried to get in the shuttle bus to the city, the van wouldn’t start, prompting 3 or 4 drivers to chip in for 5 minutes or so before the journey could begin. I noticed that the van was right hand drive, so I thought I’d be back to the familiarity of driving on the left hand side of the road – but no, all cars here are right hand drive but drive on the right side of the road as well, strange I thought… I guess it doesn’t really matter here, the rules of the road are whoever is biggest wins, and motorbikes drive up and down whichever side of the road they like to a certain extent.

It took me a couple of hours to notice my watch was wrong, I hadn’t checked what time zone Myanmar was in but was excited to find I was half an hour behind what I’d been use to so far in South East Asia. The first half hour time zone I’ve ever been in!

By the time I’d checked into the guesthouse it was already late afternoon, and decided to go for a walk alongside the riverfront. On my way home after another failed sunset viewing, I stopped in the street to talk to some locals, which prompted joining them for a drink or two. It didn’t matter that only one of them could speak just a little bit of English, they were some of the nicest people I’d ever met. They sat me down, bought me snack food, fruit, offered for me to try their locally made drinks etc. The one guy who could speak English, called JoJo (probably not spelt like that) asked me what my plans were for my time in Mandalay and then offered to essentially be my tour guide for the next few days. I graciously accepted, and when I was about to leave he offered to give me a lift back to my guesthouse, but first we stopped off at his house to meet his family, where they also cooked me food for the night.

Their family lived in a small hut, but housed him and his wife, his four children and his mother and father. A big family to share such a small roof, but this was just the first lesson in seeing the inequality in the share of wealth in the country, with many of the rich having ties to the former military junta. Anyway, the next morning I’d harangued to meet him for a lift down to the jetty to catch a boat across the river to the old town of Mingun.

Mingun is famous for its pagodas. The main one being built in honour of the king around 200years ago. However, after the Kings death it was left unfinished, and after a large scale earthquake in 1839, much of the pagoda collapsed. It now stands 50m tall where it once towered almost 100m in height over the river. A second, smaller earthquake just 2 years ago caused further cracks to appear. In some places it feels like a miracle it’s still standing and it was only on my way down from the top of the pagoda I saw the sign discouraging people from climbing it. That being said, the tourist board is still happy to charge a few dollars for the privilege of reaching the top and seeing the dazzling views of the pagoda filled countryside along with the views across the river back over to Mandalay.

The Mingun bell, which once stood in the Kings Pagoda, is now housed in a separate, adjacent building where it has been since its recovery from the pagoda ruins since 1896. Weighing in at 90tonnes, the bell is second only in size to the Moscow Bell, which now no longer chimes, and is therefore claimed as the largest working bell in the world, fourteen times the size of that in St Paul’s.

Heading back towards the boat, I had just enough time to see the White Elephant Pagoda – built for the Queen, and the ruins of the giant Lions, built at the riverside, serving as protection to the Kings pagoda. These have long been in ruins however with the lions head falling into the river long ago. Much of this information I found out from a couple of kids around the town, they were excited to practice their English and learn about my culture. We even had time to talk about Morgan Schneiderlin’s recent transfer from Southampton to Manchester United, it seems everyone here is a United fan – but I’m doing my best to change this.

I met JoJo again for lunch – locals lunch he called it. If I’m totally honest I really didn’t like it at all, but I couldn’t crush his enthusiasm and forced it down saying how much I liked the local cuisine (this would come back to haunt me the next day). He needed to run some errands before taking me around the city as we’d agreed earlier on, so I followed him back home. The previous night, he’d told me that his mother was a teacher for the kids and showed me the black board where English and geography teachings were evident. I didn’t realise she was a teacher for the whole community, and so where I’d been sat last night for dinner was now a room full of 9th grade school kids! When I showed up at the door everyone stopped what they were doing to see what the new addition to the class had to say!

Next was the errand running. JoJo told me that he has a Sunday job, but that he also does work with the lottery. At least that’s what I thought he said, and then I thought he said laundry, but it turned out I was right first time, when we turned up at a monestary of all places which doubled as a gambling HQ. JoJo gets commission when Chinese tourists, acquaintances or connections place a bet with him. They are all betting on the Thai stock market – he told me no photos! But it was a room full of computers, phone calls and numbers scrolling across flat screen TVs.

There are a number of fascinating sites in Mandalay, the city in itself being a perfect example of the disparity between rich and poor. The streets are dusty with building sites propping up every other street corner. We stopped in the middle of one of these such streets to visit a gold leaf paper making factory. Here, gold is continually hammered against stone blocks for periods of up to one hour to produce a leaf of thin, pure gold. These leaves are then used to layer statues and sculptures or sold on for the purpose of what I saw next…

Mahamuni Paya. One of the most revered Buddhist temples in Myanmar and home to a 13 foot tall golden statue of Buddha. Every day, men (woman are not allowed onto Buddhas platform) meticulously paste these golden leaves over the statues body. The thickness of the gold is thought to be around 6 inches, and is present on all parts of his body, except for his face, which is polished daily.

I skipped viewing the royal palace, a newly restored version of the palace that was destroyed during the Second World War. However the 2km square fortress and moat that surrounds gives a real identity to Mandalay. It is comparable to size as the whole of the old town of Chiang Mai, but is funny to think it is home to little more than a small palace and thick woods.

I got a birds eye view of the palace when I climbed Mandaly hill. In climbing some 900 and something steps up to the top, you pass through numerous pagodas, many of which have a stunning view over the town and across the river. At the top, the views were truely breathtaking, with Mandalay city and down to Sagaing Bridge on the south, Mingun to the west, green countryside plains to the north and mountains to the east.

The next day I took a trip across the Bridge in the south to the ancient town of Sagaing. The main feature here being Sagaing hill. This wasn’t as harsh a climb as Mandalay hill but the pagoda at the top was more striking and the views equally as spectacular. During the whole climb I could hear the distant chants of the Buddhist monks from the many nearby pagodas. This created a much more spiritual atmosphere and a sense of a miniature pilgrimage to reach to the top of the hill to worship.

The final site on my quick tour was the U Bein bridge at Amarapur. A wooden bridge stretching almost a mile in length across the river built over 200 years ago. It’s remarkable that it is still standing today, and is a popular place for locals to visit. After this there was just enough time to return to my local bar/shack with JoJo, drink some traditional rice beer, chow down more locals lunch, and say goodbye to my new friends.

View from Mingun over to Mandalay.  

The collapsed Mingun Pagoda.

  

Ringing the Mingun bell.
  

Home schooling in JoJo’s house.

Around town on this bad boy.

  
Mandalay Hill.

 Looking over the docks.


Me and the gang. JoJo was taking the photo unfortunately.

Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor

On the short bus ride up from Battambang to Siem Reap I could have been forgiven for thinking that I’d crossed a border into another country. If not for the ubiquitous tuk tuk drivers and wildly unpredictable storms, I would have thought that the purpose built resorts and westernised buildings were a world apart from from anything else I’d previously seen of Cambodia. If only the ancient Angkors could know how they would impact the country’s economy some 1000 years later.

After arriving early afternoon I had a chance to look around town. Like I said, it’s a town based on tourism, so the main ‘sites’ in town were limited to the busy “Pub Street” and local market, and it really didn’t take long to get a feel for the town. I made it back to the hostel just as a 5-a-side football tournament was getting underway. I managed to sign up with a few other people from the UK as a truly international tournament started, with the outcome being if you score, you got a free beer. Needless to say I got a few free beers and the UK team were the best amongst the group.

I spent a day looking around the local arts school. This had been set up with funding from countries in the EU in order to help any members of the community who were in anyway disadvantaged. It was amazing to walk around their workshops where their crafts included sculpting sandstone, wood, copper, paintings and lacquering,  and ceramics amongst others. Outside of town there is a silk production factory where all sorts of silk products are made by hand from start to finish. It is amazing what this school is achieving and their products are a real source of pride in the area.

I couldn’t wait much longer to go to see the main attractions to this area, so the next morning I set my alarm for 4am and set off for Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Angkor Wat represents the pride of the nation and is seen everywhere – on their flag, on their money, on their beer. It was too cloudy that morning to see the sunrise, but I could still take in the majesty and the beauty of this incredible archaeological site.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built during the 12th century as a Hindu temple, dedicated to Vishnu – the protector of the universe in the Hindu Trimurti, therefore differing from the Shaiva tradition of previous temples. It’s affiliation with Vishnu is one of the reasons the temple is thought to be orientated to the west, which is why the sunrise over the temple in the East is so famous.

The whole complex is extra ordinary. To even approach the west gate to the temple complex you have to cross a 200 metre wide moat, a further causeway approximately 300m in length takes you from the gate to the temple’s entrance. There are then three enclosures to the temple, with each wall of the entire complex delicately inscribed with teachings and carvings, and each walkway studded with sculptures and shrines. It’s incredible to see how they brought together sides of emotional and rational intelligence to combine into such a grand structure. I was looking round the temple with a French person I’d met who was interested to think that Angkor Wat was built in the same time period as Notre Dame de Paris. I think this comparison goes to show just what the Angkors achieved and the legacy that lasts today.

Angkor Wat was just the start of a three day exploration around the massive area that is home to all the Angkor Temples. There’s simply too much to talk about in this blog, but a few extras for you to read about are Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm.

The grandeur of Angkor Thom has been cited as contributing to its own downfall, but Bayon temple – built to honour the king – is an incredible piece of artwork. At first glance, the temple is a picture of chaos, but soon you start to pick out the hundreds of faces carved into the upright towers, and the symmetry of the whole structure becomes apparent. Inside the walls, you feel like you’re lost within a labyrinth, until you realise the symmetry you saw outside has also craftily spread to the inside. That being said, I still became hopelessly disorientated.

Ta Prohm is now know as “Tomb Raider Temple” as this was a main location for filming in the 2001 film. It’s a magnificent site, half in ruins, half under ongoing restoration whilst giant banyan trees sprawl across the vast facades of the temple.

With Siem Reap being one of a number of major cities in Cambodia lying in close proximity to the vast Tonke Sap lake, I took a day trip out to the lake and to pass through the soon-to-be floating village of Kompong Phluk. In a few weeks time, this village will be totally immersed in water, rising to a maximum of 9m in the height of the wet season. For this reason, the houses are built on stilts, and it was incredible to see the scale of this before the flooding begins. In recent times, funding has been brought in to villages like this across Cambodia from a number of European countries, including the UK, in order to build schools in the villages that are free to attend for the children. Despite this, many families do not send their kids to be educated, as it is more effective to keep the, back to help the family business – which in Kompong Phluk was either fishing or farming.

Further on from the village towards the lake, the river passes through the forest. This also becomes flooded, with evidence of previous floods apparent in the odd broccoli like shape of the trees. You can tell the height the water usually reaches just by looking at the trees.

I finally came to the Tonle Sap lake in time to watch the sunset. This was the point that I finally gave up on watching sunsets, as even though the rainy season is not yet fully here, it is close enough to mean the skies are constantly full of clouds! That night back at the hostel i bumped into someone I’d met way back in Phong Nha, near the start of my travels through Vietnam. It’s nice when you see familiar faces again and the ‘travellers community’ is truly amazing.

On my final day, I took a trip a little further afield, deep into the countryside and on a short hike up to the river and waterfalls. Even up in the waterfalls you could still see some ancient sculptures and carvings in the natural rock formations. This peaceful stop off was a great way to finish up in Siem Reap, but on my way home I stopped off at the sobering land mine museum.

This was set up after a local man (but of Japanese origin) called Aki Ra started devoting his life to clearing land mines throughout his country. As a child, he’d been brainwashed into fighting for the cause of the Khmer Rouge, before defecting to the Vietnamese later on in the conflict. Under the Khmer Rouge, he had himself been responsible for setting hundreds if not thousands of anti personnel and anti tank land mines, and the work he does now is using his specialist knowledge to help right these wrongs.

Approximately 1/300 Cambodians is a victim to land mines, but thanks to people and organisations that stem from the work Aki Ra has been doing over the last 20 years or so, the number of casualties and fatalities as a result of unexploded land mines and bombs is continuing to fall drastically. The site of the museum is also the private home to a number of child land mine victims who have nowhere else to go. Here they are educated, and a high proportion of them make it into university each year.

Despite the temples of Angkor being the main attraction in Siem Reap, I ended up staying here for almost a week due to the diversity of culture and history in the region, but it’s now time for me to get back on a plane and leave Cambodia.

  
Monks were all around the temple complexes. Their bright orange robes were a striking contrast to the stone temples. 

    
Angkor Wat. 

 

    
2 of the hundreds of faces at Bayon. 


Bayon Temple.

  
Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Temple)  


The floating village of Kompong Phluk.


Arts and crafts workshop.

Battambang

I headed northwest from Phnom Penh to the town of Battambang. The six hour ride on an unairconditioned but surprisingly spacious, rundown, old bus took me far away from the busyness and dazzle of the capital city, through the countryside and into a contrasting slow paced, mellow town.

I arrived early afternoon and went to explore the town. There’s not a whole lot to see in the town itself apart from some of the striking French colonial buildings such as the central market and abandoned railways. However by night, the town comes alive with numerous street stalls and more market vendors popping up along the river promenade. It felt like the whole town came out along the riverfront at night, with kids playing games and adults excercising and socialising amongst the numerous openings and apparatus on the promenade. It really had quite a warm vibe to it whilst maintaining its chilled out atmosphere that the town is known for.

A lot of the allure of Battambang lies outside the town however, so the next day I was up to my usual tricks and back on the scooters.

Within a radius of approximately 30km, there are plenty of old temples, caves and huge stretches of amazing countryside to see. I started off at Wat Banan, Banan being a small village to the south of Battambang. This temple lies at the top of a hill, but the effort of climbing over 350 (slightly old, disjointed and steep) steps is worth it. At the top you see the remains of five towers, which pre-date Angkor Wat.

  

I went off in search of the next temple complex, heading northwest. Riding through the countryside was amazing. You can see for miles and miles around you over the totally flat farm lands, however, every so often a large mound appears out of nowhere, these mounds being the homes to the temple sites. My map told me I was in the right place to see Wat Sampov, but after riding around for half an hour, doing circles around the same village surrounding what I assumed to be the right mount, I decided I was lost. Of course the locals didn’t understand a word of what I was saying, and didn’t seem to understand the map, but eventually I came across an opening that would lead me up the hill.

As I climbed the views over the flat plains where incredible, but I soon started to question whether or not I was in the right place, as the overgrown paths felt like they had not been trodden on for weeks, perhaps months. Soon though, I found steps, signs and ribbons indicating the way to the top. The higher I went, the more overgrown the path became, and when I finally reached a clearing at the top it was not what I expected at all. Not a temple, but a shrine, almost of a make-shift feel. But the feeling of being completely alone in this place was quite special. I still not sure (rather I highly doubt) I found Wat Sampov, but whatever I found was amazing, perhaps mainly for it being so unexpected.

My final stop was to a complex of caves, with Wat Sampeau lying right at the top of this, the largest mount I’d come across. I was glad I was riding a bike as I powered past hoards of people who’s tuk tuk drivers had made them walk around the complex!

I stopped off at the sobering killing caves. Another reminder of the brutality the Khmer Rouge brought on its own people (see Phnom Penh blog for more details). These caves were essentially large openings in the ground. Prisoners would be marched to the top, beaten and pushed over the edge. If they were lucky they would have died before being thrown in. There were three killing caves, one for children and babies, one for pregnant women and a final one for everyone else. In total the remains of over 20000 have been found here.

On the way home I was treated to a show of nature at its weirdest and most wonderful. In the side of this mount is a cave home to approximately 8 million bats. At around dusk, everyday, these bats flock out into the sky to their night habitat, leaving a trail of black stretching off into the distance in the sky, the show lasting almost half an hour. Of course, as the bats were about to come out it started pouring down with rain, but aside from getting completely drenched, I only had to wait another 30 minutes or so to see this fantastic show.

On my last night in Battambang, I went to see the Phare Ponleu Selpak – the Cambodian circus. This was born out of a multi-arts school (including theatre, sculpting, painting, music etc) for disadvantaged children in the province. It really was quite spectacular, and I left that night, and Battambang the next day, with a big smile on my face.

  

Phnom Penh

I guess this could be described as my first visit to an “undeveloped” country.

My trip to Cambodia started from the small port town of Ha Tien in Vietnam. I was the only person on the bus that took me to the border crossing to Cambodia, going through at a quiet crossing point the process was quick and easy. I think there was a bit of a scam in place as after obtaining my visa, I was led on to the ‘ministry of health’ where a laser was pointed at my head and after they were satisfied the laser showed that I had a regular temperature, and they’d asked me if I had malaria (I said no), they let me pass after I’d paid a $1 tax. Now, everyone I spoke to that passed at the more conventional border crossing points didn’t even have to see the health minister, but I guess I had the last laugh as I paid the tax in nickels, dimes and 5cent coins – coins are next to useless in Cambodia as denominations under a dollar are then counted in the local currency, Cambodian Riel. He thanked me for the “souvenir” before sending me on my way.

I changed buses a little while later when I was dropped off at the side of the road and told to flag down the next bus. Fortunately, it arrived almost as I was unloading my bags so managed to jump straight on. From there, it was a short(ish) 150km to Phnom Penh, but this took nearly 5.5 hours due to the condition of the roads (or rather dirt tracks) that spanned the country side.

Phnom Penh creeps up on you as you’re approaching the city. You find the side of the dirt tracks to become increasingly busy with houses, shops and people, before turning onto a Tarmac road and hitting rush hour. You’ll hit rush hour whichever hour of the day you arrive.

On my trip to the hostel, I couldn’t quite believe the rich/poor western/traditional dichotomy that made up the capital. I’d turn off a street full of expensive jewellery, electronics and even car shops, past the costa coffee on the street corner, and be met with a huge pile of rubbish stretching the length of a road with a tuktuk driver urinating into it at the top of an alley way of run down buildings. This pattern continues throughout the city.
Still, it always felt like a nice, safe place to be. I spent much of the first night in the area around the hostel – a common area for travellers close to the river front which I think was probably a little cleaner and upmarket than other areas. After checking into my hostel I was a little hungry so ordered a beer and a cookie. I’d just stopped by the atm and all it gave me was a $100 bill. The barman rolled his eyes as he gave me my $99.50 dollars change – the beer was free!

The next day I wanted to get the heavy stuff out of the way, so I took a tuktuk to the genocide centre (or “killing fields”) which is just 1 of an estimated 300 sites of mass graves from the era of the Khmer Rouge, fronted by Pol Pot. It was hard to believe the brutality that this regime imposed on the country. It’s ultra communist target of making the country entirely self sufficient went as far as murdering anyone thought to be a threat to the regime (including anyone educated, anyone wearing glasses, anyone with soft hands). They also took self-sufficiency as far as medicine, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people with treatable diseases such as malaria.

An estimated 1.7 million out of Cambodia’s population of 8 million are thought to have lost their lives under this 4 year regime, which only came to an end just 10 years before I was born in 1979. I learnt more about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge at the S-21 museum – the former site of a torture prison that the condemned would be held in before being taken outside of the city to be executed. I’m not going to write anymore about what I learnt at these places, but it is definitely worth reading about to try and understand how these horrors could have occurred so recently in our history.

I went to the market for a beer to take the edge off at the end of this, and was kicked out of a restaurant because the police were coming, and they weren’t licensed to stay open after 6. It was 6:30. I’d finished my meal but one of the people I was with hadn’t, so she had her plate whisked away and went hungry for the time being.

The next day I spent ‘site seeing’ in the city. This included a trip to the museum, which was largely filled with relics and information from the Angkor period (nice before my upcoming trip to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor), the independence monument and a walk round the royal palace and silver pagoda, both of which were closed for visiting.

I got a tuktuk driver to take me on a tour of the rest of the ‘sites’ – Wat Phnom, followed by a drive over the river to another temple and to feed the local monkeys. Unfortunately, the heavens opened before I had time to see the ‘Golden Temple’ but to be fair I was all templed out for that day anyway so went back across the river to try some local Khmer food.

I fancied a chilled out night before leaving the next morning and had heard of the German-Cambodian Cultural Centre near to where I was staying. This included a rooftop, open air art house cinema which happened to be showing an interesting documentary film about humans seeming destruction of the planet. I think it’s worth mentioning because the film was made in the early 80’s, but when I stepped back out onto the streets in this quiet part of town, I seemed to have stepped back in time to what the film was suggesting about the U.S. almost 35 years ago.

I like Phnom Penh, and believe that things will change here rapidly. It’s hard to believe the atrocities they faced so recently but I think the industry of tourism is lifting them out of that dark background and everyone here is looking towards a brighter future.

A colourful memorial at the site of one of the killing fields mass graves


A local wanted photographing and a chat  

Wat Phnom

  
  

Phu Quoc

I think I might have found paradise…

My final stop in Vietnam was a chill out stop, by the beach, time to relax after just rushing through the busy streets of Saigon, and to reflect on the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen over the last four weeks or so, since I’d been in the country.

Phu Quoc is the largest of Vietnam’s islands, lying a short distance off the west coast. I was meeting up with a friend there who I’d been travelling with for a short time earlier on in my trip down the Vietnamese coast, and by the time I’d arrived a few days later, found that she’d managed to befriend a local family. Although only one of the family could speak a little bit of English, they were all incredibly friendly and inclusive, and wanted nothing more than to show us around the island.

They were unbelievably welcoming, inviting us to their house way down the country paths somewhere in the centre of the island. The whole family lived in a small farm house and we were given the full tour of the farm and surrounding land, including walking up through the cool stream which ran through their land. They made us a feast of a lunch, a hotspot made from local produce of fish, pork and vegetables, with the whole family along with the two of us gathered around on the floor to laugh, joke and enjoy the food and company.

Most of the jokes were focussed on my driving, as I’d struggled to get the motorbike down the narrow, bumpy and muddy lanes to their farm. I think I did pretty well, especially as there were three of us in total on the bike I was driving, but clearly without the year s of experience driving on those roads, it provided quite some entertainment for everyone else!

After lunch, we were taken to Phu Quoc’s hot springs where we relaxed and swam in the cool river. Again, their welcoming was incredible as the family insisted on paying our entrance fee to the springs. A small fee, but a remarkably kind gesture. Later on in the afternoon, it was unfortunately time to say goodbye. I went back to the beach and the day was finished off by a beautiful sunset.

The rest of my time here was spent exploring. From the crashing waves on the west coast, to the calm and tranquil, white sand and clear blue seas on the east coast, to the forrested highlands and national park in the north, the diversity of this small island is remarkable, and I was so lucky to have the sun shining for much of this time.

It was the perfect way to finish off my travels through Vietnam, which as a whole has seemed to offer up anything I could have imagined and more. Really, there have been too many highlights to name, and I feel grateful to leave with all the good memories that I have.