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Burma weaving

Friday Photo Diary – 19th February

Every Friday I’ll be writing a post with where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to that week, and include my favourite five photos.

 

This week I finally made it into Burma! Burma (or Myanmar, as it is officially known) has long been at the top of my Asia travel list, and I’m incredibly excited to be at the beginning of a four week journey here.

 

After leaving Jeni in Luang Prabang, Laos, last week, I made my way to the bus station to board my 20+ hour bus over to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Unfortunately I realised upon checking in that the agency I’d used to purchase my bus ticket had not booked my seat and so, after a frustrated phone call and some persuasion on my part, I ended up on a wooden stool next to the driver. This was obviously not ideal for an overnight journey. Thankfully not long after departure a local gentleman offered to exchange seats with me so that I could get some rest; I’m not sure I’ve ever been so grateful as I settled in for the night without too many further interruptions.

 

Arriving in Chiang Mai some 23 hours later, I’d set aside a day or two to catch up with a friend from home, and as he works with one of the minority tribes in Burma I also gained valuable information for my upcoming trip.

 

On Tuesday morning I made the final part of my journey into Burma by taking a six hour bus south to Mae Sot, where luck would have it, I met up with our Swedish trekking companions, Martin and Oliver, who were crossing the border that afternoon also. The crossing itself was far quicker and easier than I’d anticipated; after getting stamped out of Thailand it was a five or so minute walk over the friendship bridge to the Burmese border control in Myawaddy. Here we were ushered past a queue of locals into the ‘foreigners office’ where forms were completed and photos taken and we were back outside ten minutes later.

 

It was during the entry process that we met a chatty and near-fluent (in English) Burmese man who afterwards took us to a money changing counter and then helped locate our guesthouse. The cheapest rooms available in town were $18 each – a huge increase from the prices I’d paid in other countries, and definitely not a step up in quality – this provided a tile-covered room of 3m x 3m, with no window, a small bed and fan, and shared squat toilet and cold water shower facilities. This didn’t deter me much; I’d set my accommodation expectations fairly low and after all, it was only one night.

 

Early the following morning I was awoken by my self-appointed guide from the previous day. I’d mentioned to him that I’d be taking a bus to Mawlaymine that day – and at 8am he was waiting for me with a car to take me there along with two other travellers who’d crossed the border that morning. After a rushed pack and no time to shower or breakfast, we were on our way!

 

We travelled ‘family’ style; the car seats taken out and four of us led out in the back for the bumpy five hour drive, stopping regularly (every ten or so minutes) for bribe money to be given to various characters – some military, some villagers. Breakfast was, to my delight, dhal curry and roti.

 

In Mawlaymine I checked into Breeze Guesthouse, a busy and friendly-run place with cell-like rooms, free breakfast and hot showers. To my amazement I found a cafe across the street which not only had great wifi (something I wasn’t sure I’d find until Yangon), but also served coke floats and potato smileys; triggering wonderful memories of childhood treats.

 

Yesterday I booked onto a group trip to Ogre Island (Bilu Kyun), just across the river from Mawlaymine. Ogre Island got its name from a local legend that the villagers there ate young men and consequently became ugly! The trip was a perfect introduction to Burmese village life, starting with an invite to a rare celebration, visits to a variety of family craftsmen and ending with a swim in a local bathing pool.

 

Burma so far has been incredible; the food is delicious, the scenery beautiful and the people are the warmest and friendliest I’ve come across. Just now as I’m writing this a truck of school children has pulled up and they’re all waving and vying for my attention – teacher included.

 

Here are my favourite five:

 

Mon household, Ogre Island

Mon household, Ogre Island

Sleeping cat on Ogre Island

Sleeping cat on Ogre Island

Bilu Kyun countryside

Bilu Kyun countryside

Weaving, Ogre Island

Weaving, Ogre Island

Rubber Factory, Ogre Island

Rubber Factory, Ogre Island

Luang Prabang

A post, at last

First, an apology, to my family and anyone else who has been eagerly checking my blog whilst I’ve been away and found nothing from me, other than a couple of dated Istagram photos.

My first six weeks of travelling Southeast Asia have been incredible, emotional, and rather traumatic at times, but I’ve seen and experienced so many amazing things in a short space of time that I felt ready to start writing finally. I’m currently staying on the coast of southern Thailand, about three hours from Bangkok in a small city called Rayong. With a week to waste in Bangkok waiting for my Chinese visa to be processed, I thought I’d take a mini-break to see a different area, catch up with family over skype and start sorting through the tonne of photos I’ve taken so far. I’ve splurged on a slightly nicer hotel (I have a bathtub, desk and the comfiest bed I’ve possibly ever slept in) to ‘ahem’ assist with my plans.

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I’ll start with a brief overview of where I’ve been so far, and will follow up on the highlights with further blog posts later.

Starting in Bangkok on 9th June, I spent five days in the city before heading north. I packed a fair amount into my first few days, including Wat Pho, Jim Thompson’s house, a local boat ride through the city rivers, a bicycle tour around Bangkok and into the nearby jungle, an afternoon cuddling kitties at Caturday Cafe, shopping at Chatuchak and various night markets and three separate nights out on the infamous Khao San road.

Wat Pho

Buddhas at Wat Pho

Caturday Cafe

Caturday Cafe

Bangkok market

Bangkok market

Slightly over the craziness and noise of Bangkok, I caught a night bus up to Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. The journey was nine hours of stomach-churning, panic-inducing, sleepless hell. Being seated on the top floor of a double-decker travelling way too fast through monsoonal storms, I would recommend to anyone else that the train is a much more comfortable, and safer option! My fear was confirmed last week when I met a couple whose bus travelling the same route toppled off the road into a small river.

I love Chiang Mai. Full of friendly locals, delicious street food and a lively night scene, I happily spent over two weeks there making new friends, visiting beautiful temples and eating, a lot. My list of highlights from here is huge, but includes seeing a local football match (Chiang Mai vs Ayuthaya), getting a bamboo tattoo, visiting my favourite temple at the top of Doi Suthep and watching a ladyboy cabaret show.

Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep

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I also took two separate trips to Pai, a small hippie village set in a picturesque valley just three hours north.

Pai

Pai

After Chiang Mai I caught a local bus up to Chiang Rai and spent a day visiting the two strangest buildings I’ve ever seen. Built fairly recently by different architects, the White Temple and Black House are at opposite ends of the city, both geographically and architecturally. The Black House is full of dark objects, including animal skulls, crocodile skins and cages enclosing huge snakes and an owl. The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is beautifully designed, with mirrored glass embedded into the stonework, although work on the compound is still ongoing.

Black House, Chiang Rai

Skulls at the Black House

White Temple, Chiang Rai

The White Temple

White Temple

Hands from hell

After a rather early start to cross the border into Laos, I boarded a two-day slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, stopping overnight in Pakbeng en route. The scenery along the Mekong was stunning, but the boat was cramped and uncomfortable. Having spent seven hours on the first day packed onto a bench with no head rest or leg room, I spent the second day sat at the back of the boat with a few friends, several locals, two chickens and three freshly caught fish – a much more comfortable, and authentic experience.

Mekong River

Mekong River

Slow boat

The boat

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang Countryside

The time I spent in Luang Prabang is almost certainly my favourite part of my trip so far. I didn’t particularly love the city, although the night bazaar was outstanding, but the countryside around was stunning. Spending an afternoon at Kuang Si Falls, the 40-minute drive there was through villages surrounded by rice fields, small rivers and mountain valleys.

Luang Prabang

Sunset in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Falls

I took a two-day trek in the area just north of Luang Prabang, and spent the night in a Khmu tribe village.

Trekking in Laos

Trekking in Laos

Hmong Girl

Hmong Girl

Khmu Village

Khmu Village

After Luang Prabang I took a minibus to Vang Vieng, a small town once known only for its parties and drunken tubing. I’m proud to say that I didn’t even ride a tube down the Nam Song, and instead spent four days relaxing by the river, eating pie and mash, and shamefully watching at least two full seasons of Friends.

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng

After a short stay in Vientiane to visit the COPE centre, an extremely informative and inspirational centre established to treat victims of unexploded ordinance (UXO), I headed back to Bangkok. Taking a short train ride across the Laos/Thailand border, I then boarded an overnight train to the city.

COPE, Vientiane

COPE, Vientiane

Luang Prabang night market

Luang Prabang night market

My plans from here are to spend a few weeks on the southern islands, before flying over to China (visa-dependent, of course).