On the road in Mandalay

CURRENT LOCATION: Bangkok, Thailand (again...)

Zev:
 

After our rather traumatising mini bus ride to Mandalay from Bagan, we decided to head out for a nice dinner approximately 1 km away from our hotel. The layout of the city centre, where we were staying, is a massive grid. This works really well in many cities and shows a significant amount of foresight by the city's founders (more than can be said about Auckland). However, and this is a pretty big however, the North to South streets are all named by numbers and the East to West streets are also named with numbers... So there are no street "names", per se. To add to this, many of the streets N to S and E to W do not span the entire city. For example, if you were walking along 73rd street, and you came to cross road with 34th street it's entirely possible that the next cross street is not 35th street as you might expect, but, is, in fact, 36th street... Or even 37th street. This befuddling situation would be completely redundant if there were any street signs. There are few. Fewer street signs than white people even. This made map­less navigation frustrating. Combined with our scrambled insides from our horrible bus ride and the prolonged hunger, our inability to find the restaurant we were after left us near death. Or so it felt. However, after 35­-40 minutes, several double-­backs and circumnavigations we found our restaurant and life returned. I think we even managed a few smiles and laughs over dinner. 

Our first full day in Mandalay saw us heading to the Royal Palace. Now since our adventure started in Bangkok nearly 6 months ago, we have seen our fair share of royal palaces. So, to be perfectly honest, we've seen it all. It was going to take something really epic to impress us now (see more about this phenomenon in our last blog post). And you know what, Mandalay palace failed. It failed on so many levels. The palace was not a palace, but a reconstruction of what the palace grounds may have looked like. The palace was at the centre of a massive plot of land surrounded by 10m high brick walls and a truly impressive moat. Each of the four brick walls were at least 2­3km long! Massive. Once we entered the palace grounds it became clear that there was a serious military presence. I believe the grounds are used by government or military (not that much of difference here) officials to go about whatever it is that they do. Outside the visitor entrance there was a huge, red billboard that read in both Burmese and CAPS lock English: "TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE, COOPERATE AND CRUSH ALL THOSE HARMING THE UNION." There were a number of heavily armed soldiers who were all very eager to make sure we purchased our ticket to enter the grounds. There were a number of vague maps that outlined where tourists were allowed, which areas were restricted and where it was ok to take photos or not. Despite all this, it was not particularly tense as you might think. It was just, as much of Myanmar is, strange (to us) and foreign. When we entered the gates we still had to walk about 1 km to the centre of the compound, where the palace was located and where we were allowed to take photos.

 Royal Palace, Mandalay


We arrived at the palace and quickly realised that it was not to be a top ten palace of SE Asia. We removed our shoes and socks, then started our exploration. There are a bunch of buildings that have been recently created (circa 1990) to resemble the traditional palace that would have stood there hundreds of years ago. The buildings were empty, there was no signage or context, and the grounds were relatively poorly managed. To say the building were empty is actually unfair, most of them had resident pigeons, by association, bird crap all over the floors, so would hate to have left that out. And remember how we had to take off our shoes? At the back of the complex there was a half-assed "museum" that housed a bunch of random memorabilia, a few actual historic relics and number of re-­imaginings of apparel or costumes from the era. The one redeeming feature of the attraction was a massive lookout tower that you can climb to get a bird's eye view of the palace and much of Mandalay city centre. You could also see Mandalay Hill, which was to be our next destination. 

 Royal Palace, Mandalay



But first, lunch. Lunch was delicious. We went to an American style diner called Cafe City. We had burgers and milkshakes. Ready to climb the hill. 

We arrived at the bottom of Mandalay Hill where there was a covered pedestrian walkway that lead you to the top. Once again removed our shoes and socks and started up the steps. Up and up and up and up and up and up. There were about 7 or 8 false summits, and it just kept going. Unfortunately this cool location was not particularly well looked after. There was seemingly an attempt to restore the walkway with a number of men painting the beams that supported the covered walkway. However, most of the paint was on the concrete floor/steps. There was seemingly no attempt to prevent drips and when they obviously dropped their paint buckets, no obvious effort to clean the spill was to be seen. The many pagodas and buddha shrines on the way up were inhabited by scabby, very ill looking dogs and cats, pigeons and hawkers. It was a bit of shame, the premise of the site was great, and it had serious potential, but it was just lacking effort and no doubt proper funding to help it reach this potential. 

 Mandalay Hill, Mandalay
 Mandalay Hill, Mandalay


When we finally made it to the top, about 1100 steps and an hour later, we were met with a huge sign that informed us of a 1000 kyat ($1 US) foreigner fee, however, there was no obvious place to pay this and no one was enforcing it. So we carried on to check out our well earned view. This aspect did not disappoint. 360° views of Mandalay and the surrounding hills, river, and wetlands. It was stunning. We took some photos, enjoyed the breeze and had a look at the extra shiny, glass­-covered temple at the top and made our way back down. We decided to head back to our hotel for a couple hours before heading out for dinner and a traditional Myanmar marionette show!

 Mandalay Hill, Mandalay
 Mandalay Hill, Mandalay


The marionette show was pretty awesome. It was created by a master puppeteer about 45 years ago in an attempt to save the almost lost art to which he had devoted himself. It was a small theatre that seated 50-­60 people, an area below the stage (but at ground level) for the band to play traditional music for the show, and the raised stage itself. It was decorated with traditional artwork, instruments, and of course puppets. The show began and Sam and I made up 25% of the attendees. We were given a brief rundown in English of what show would involve and the music began. We saw a woman doing traditional Myanmar dances as well as a number of "famous" puppet dances to an upbeat, drum-­filled soundtrack. It was definitely impressive to see the puppeteers in action and while the majority of the time the puppet masters were hidden, at specific times the curtain was raised fully to reveal the masterful, delicate manoeuvres that the puppeteers were carrying out. Some of the puppet dances were really cool and others felt as though they needed a bit more practice. But overall it was a really cool cultural experience. Exactly one hour later, the show was finished, and so was our first day in Mandalay. 

On day two we were feeling a bit fatigued from our climb the day before, but we decided to achieve what we had done at many a palace in SE Asia, to circumnavigate the palace grounds! We did cheat a little bit though, as we had gone anticlockwise around half the palace the day before we thought we'd just go clockwise today. Boom ­- whole palace traversed. We were heading back towards Mandalay Hill to check out a few temples we didn't have time for yesterday. We stopped off for some curry and satay for lunch then carried on to the temples. They were, and I can't believe I'm still saying this, really cool. We've seen A LOT of temples now, but these were both filled with tall white stupas placed in a massive grid. They each were adorned with bells, that chimed in the wind, and made for a very zen experience. Which is what you want at a temple I guess. However, the second temple was under refurbishment in the form of an angle grinder against metal rods, so the zen feeling quickly subsided. All the walking and climbing steps had taken it out of us, plus the heat and humidity meant by mid-­afternoon we were ready to relax in the air conditioning before our journey back to Bangkok the next day. 

 Mandalay
 Mandalay
 Mandalay


Good thing we took it easy, because the road to Bangkok was not straightforward. We took the free Air Asia shuttle to the airport from downtown to airport, located 50km from city. This was actually a good service and despite arriving 30 minutes later than advertised, it certainly saved us further money and headaches. However, when we arrived at the airport, we soon discovered that the check in was after a security check, and they didn't open the security check until they opened check in. This meant we had to sit in the airport for over an hour, with the busload of people we had arrived with. After all we were all on the only flight to Bangkok for the day. This arrival lounge was not air conditioned, had one painfully over­priced cafe, non functioning free wifi, and deficit of about 20 seats for the number of people waiting to check in. Not great. Also, when check in opened, it meant that all of the people who were on the plane (our fellow bus takers and... Everyone else on the plane) were now in a massive line, being checked one by one, by a lone security officer. This queue took around 25 minutes to complete. Then the same plane load of people had to queue to check in with the airline. Another 15 minutes thanks to Air Asia actually having three check in desks operational (nice one!). Then a third queue for immigration. Then we queued for boarding. Good times. The flight was easy and comfortable, as we were surrounded by empty seats. An hour and half later we were in Don Mueang airport in Bangkok. The lines for immigration were huge, but were dwarfed by the line to get a taxi. From exiting the airplane to getting into our taxi took 3 hours and 25 minutes. Needless to say, we were not happy campers. The silver lining was knowing that we had a quality hotel to check in to and we knew exactly how to get there using the BTS monorail, as we stayed in the same place last time we were in Bangkok. We dropped our bags in our lovely room and immediately went out for a delicious dinner at our last destination for this epic adventure. 

Lots of love,
Z & S
xxx 

(Original post date: 26th July 2015)

Temples temples temples temples temples

CURRENT LOCATION: Mandalay, Myanmar

Sam:

Bagan answered one important question for us: after 5.5 months in South East Asia, do we still care about temples? Answer: sort of. 

The ancient city of Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Bagan from the 9th-13th centuries, the first Kingdom to unite the regions that would later become modern Myanmar. During its peak, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed, and today, over 2200 temples and pagodas remain. The result is a countryside dotted with crumbling ruins as far as the eye can see. Sadly, in the 1990s the military government decided to restore many of the sites in an attempt to encourage tourism, but did so with no input from anyone win any real knowledge. As a result, many of the temples are semi-restored with modern materials, in many cases destroying precious original details in the process.

We started our first day by hiring an e-bike. For those of you unfamiliar, this is basically an electric scooter equipped with pedals, which you can use to recharge your battery if it goes flat. As we set off down the road, we quickly realised that this was going to be an uncomfortable ride. The tiny wheels made the ride very unstable, and the sand covered roads didn't help. The seat was uncomfortable, the grips were painful, and the pedals were right at shin smashing height. Zev's feet didn't fit in the foot well either. Still, it was more enjoyable than the other option for touring the area - a horse and cart.

Off we puttered, at a top speed of 20km/hr. We drove past countless smaller temples, searching for the bigger, better known ones to make sure we didn't miss anything important. We pulled in to the Archaeology Museum to find it was closed on Mondays, so we couldn't go in - although it was Sunday, so I'm not sure what was going on there. Unperturbed, we carried on, pulling in to our first major temple: Gawdawpalin Temple.

 Bagan, Mandalay

Gawdawpalin Temple is the second largest temple in Bagan, and contains several huge Buddha statues. It was really cool to see so many locals visiting the temples as well. Apparently there is a local saying that suggests you're not really from Myanmar until you've been to Bagan.

We hopped back in our bikes and carried on down the road until the next temple caught our eye: Shwegugyi Temple. Sadly the entryway was lined with aggressive hawkers, something we hadn't really encountered in Myanmar until Bagan, but we got used to them again as the day wore on. A young boy befriended Zev not long after we climbed up the stairs to the pagoda, so I left them to it - grumpy mouse likes to see temples without a running commentary from a 7 year old trying to sell us postcards. We climbed up onto the roof of the temple and were treated to some incredible views out over the plains. Honestly, so many temples. Of particular note was the nearby Ananda Temple. Eventually Zev freed himself from his new shadow (without even having to buy a postcard), and we followed our noses to Ananda.

 Bagan, Myanmar

Ananda is the most famous of Bagan's temples, and it didn't disappoint. The temple was damaged in an earthquake in 1975, but is one of the few temples that has been well restored. The inside was a little worse for wear, with bats and birds nesting in the ceiling, creating a... lingering aroma... 

 Bagan, Myanmar
 Bagan, Myanmar

By now, we were ready for lunch, so pulled over not far down the road at a vegetarian restaurant that blew our socks off! We enjoyed delicious pumpkin curry, stuffed dhal, coconut milkshakes, and tasty tasty tamarind candy. Fat and happy, we hit the road again, our poor little e-bikes struggling to carry us.

 Bagan, Myanmar

Our next stop was Shwezigon Paya, where some 'friendly' ladies insisted we enter through their stall, then tried to pin badge things to our chests as we walked through. I managed to fight them off, but Zev left the encounter with a butterfly pinned to his chest. A huge gold-leaf gilded stupa rises up from many smaller stupas around it, and is a pretty breathtaking sight. When you can find a corner where people aren't trying to sell you stuff, or staring at you, or taking your photo, or asking where you're from, it's actually pretty peaceful sitting and listening to the bells at the top of the stupa blow in the wind on a beautiful sunny day.

 Bagan, Myanmar

We managed to avoid the women on our way out, and saddled up for another ride to two smaller temples on the road home. The first was locked, but the second was looked after by two brothers who were napping inside. They invited us in (well, one did, the other slept through the entire exchange), then told us to climb up onto the roof. We did, and it was stunning, with yet another view out over the plains. We were the only people there and it was magnificent.

 Bagan, Myanmar

It had reached the point in the afternoon where we were hot and tired, so we headed back to the hotel for some air conditioning, with a plan to head out again for sunset. We managed to get good enough internet to stream some coverage of the NZ U23 women's team playing Germany at the Ultimate Frisbee junior world champs in London. The ladies did us proud, and while they didn't come away with a win, they played great.

As we headed out to collect our laundry before going in search of sunset, we were greeted with a surprise - our friends from the night before (the kid and his uncle we played frisbee with) were back, and they'd brought the uncle's art! The boy insisted that they'd been waiting for us because Zev had promised to buy a painting from them the night before. We explained that that was not the case, and headed off to collect our clothes. Thankfully they were gone when we got back.

We dropped off our clothes and headed off, stopping first at Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest temple in Bagan. Just as we were pulling up, it started to pour with rain, so we sheltered in the temple. Yet again Zev found himself with a friend, this time another artist (surprise surprise), so I left them to it. Sadly, the staircases which allow you to explore the upper levels were shut off, but the lower level had some impressive Buddhas. By the time we were done, the rain had eased, so we went in search of North Guni, a less popular and therefore less crowded temple for sunset.

 Bagan, Myanmar

We ended up lost (most of the roads are sand paths, so maps aren't terribly accurate), but by a happy coincidence found ourselves at Sulamani Temple, one we'd looked for earlier in the day, but couldn't find on our map. While the temple itself was much the same as many of the others we'd seen that day, the outside was amazing. There were SO MANY SQUIRRELS! They were running all over the place and climbing all over the temple. Super cute.

 Bagan, Myanmar
 Bagan, Myanmar

From there we consulted another map, and found our way to North Guni. Who should we pass as we pulled up to the temple? Our frisbee playing friends! They made a prompt u turn and came back to ask us one more time if we wanted a painting. We explained that we did not, then explained to the girl making her way towards us that we also didn't want any trousers. We climbed the stairs inside the temple. There were probably about 20 people there, but compared to a temple we'd driven past to get there which was COVERED in people, this was pretty quiet. We sat for about 20 minutes soaking in the atmosphere and admiring the view, before abandoning what was shaping up to be a rather average sunset.

 Horse selfie

Horse selfie

 Bagan, Myanmar
 Bagan, Myanmar
 Sunset selfie

Sunset selfie

About 2/3 of the way home, the unthinkable happened - Zev's e-bike ran out of juice. He had no choice but to pedal on a bike that was about 6 sizes too small for him, with pedals that were almost too far back to reach. I found it hilarious, as I smugly rode along beside him. We dropped off our bikes and had a delicious dinner (also topped off with tamarind candy) before heading back to the hotel for the night.

The next morning was more of a struggle. That's kind of where we're at in the trip too - knowing we're heading home is making us think about home in a way we haven't before. I don't think either of us have really suffered any homesickness on this trip, but we're so close now we can almost taste it. And yes, we are starting to get South East Asia-ed out. I read an interesting article recently written by a couple who have been travelling around Asia for 10 months so far by motorbike. They wrote two articles, one called "The joys of log term travel", and one called "The hardships of long term travel". We have had (and, for the next week, are still having) an amazing trip. While travelling for 6 months is hardly revolutionary, and some hardened 'road warriors' would scoff at our mere half-year, this is the longest we've ever travelled for in one go, and it has been a huge learning experience. If we did this trip again, there are certainly things we'd do differently, but overall, I think we've done well! We've had the opportunity to see and do more than we ever could have on a string of two week vacations, and we've seen countries in a way we just couldn't with short term travel. That said, there are down sides. We are now very difficult to impress. Things that would have blown our minds six months ago barely even warrant a photo now. Even as we're in the middle of experiencing something incredible, I'll be mentally planning the next big adventure. You struggle to appreciate experiences, because before you've had a chance to fully absorb it, the next crazy thing comes along. I actually think it will be really nice to head home and actually have some time to absorb the incredible things we've done. We were talking today about how, if we'd been in a position to keep going on this trip, we would've really had to change it up with our next destination, making it somewhere completely different to keep the experience fresh and make sure we didn't get burnt out.

Anyway, so that's how we were feeling on the morning of day 2. After choking down what felt like our millionth average breakfast, we ventured out into the already sweltering day. We collected our e-bikes again, and stopped off at the first temple. It was lovely, but we were over it. To us, it looked exactly the same as the 10 we saw yesterday. We made an executive decision - no more temples. Instead, we headed to the Bagan look out tower controversially built by a resort reasonably recently. On our speed machines, it took us about 45 minutes to get there.

We finally found the entrance, and paid our $10 to get up the tower. A staff member escorted us to the elevator and rode with us up to the eleventh floor, where we were given a welcome drink of delicious juice. From there, we took the elevator up to the 12th floor, then walked up the stairs to the 13th floor, which was an open air observation deck.

 Bagan, Myanmar

We had the whole place to ourselves and the view was staggering. We had a 360° view out over all of Bagan. We could see temples dotted everywhere. It was definitely worth the ride. We spent about an hour up there taking photos, enjoying the view, and relaxing in the sun.

 Bagan, Myanmar

We spent the afternoon in the hotel again, having seen our fill of temples. Later, we returned our e-bikes and booked onward bus tickets from Bagan to Mandalay the following morning.

Our bus trip the next day was... Interesting. We were excited to be in seats 1 & 2, not shoved down the back of the bus. Until we saw the bus. It was a small bus, about half the size of a normal bus. Seat 1 was next to the driver, and seat 2 was directly behind it. Neither had any leg room, and there was nowhere to put our bags. I climbed into the front seat. For the first few minutes, the driver was more worried about whether his lunch box was in the right place than whether we were on the correct side of the road. I politely informed him that I'd watch his lunch, if he'd watch the road. Then, I got to experience something completely unfamiliar to me - driving in South East Asia while I could see where we were going. It was terrifying. More often in the wrong side of the road than the right, and usually dangerously close to other cars, we flew down the roads. I tried to go to sleep, but even more than usual, this driver drove exclusively with his horn.

5 very long hours later, we pulled into Mandalay, and were dropped at our hotel. Within 10 minutes I was half naked in front of the air conditioning eating donuts from the Donut King across the road. A good start to our last new stop on the trip!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 23rd July 2015)

You could be a part-time model...

CURRENT LOCATION: Bagan, Myanmar

Sam:

Our arrival in Kalaw after our rickety train journey was reminiscent of our time in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. We got off the train in the mountains, where it felt about 10° cooler and the air was fresh. We checked in to our guest house and went straight out in search of food, having missed breakfast that morning. We were directed to a Nepali curry house, which was a nice change of pace from fried rice and noodles! An early start following my days of sickness really knocked me on my ass, and I spent the afternoon asleep. I woke up in time for dinner, and we sorted out a day hike for the following day.

Our original plan had been to do the three day/two night hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake (ie Nyaungshwe), but after the mess up with our bus tickets (thanks Naypyidaw!), we had to scratch that off the list. We then toyed with the idea of doing a different overnight hike, but given that I was still feeling pretty lethargic, we decided a day hike was safer. We paid our $10NZD each for an 8 hour hike, including lunch, and went to bed early in preparation.

The next morning at 8am we went down for breakfast, to be ready to hike at 8.30am. Our guide was already waiting there for us, so we wolfed down our breakfast and went back upstairs and grabbed our bags. I came down first, and our guide asked if we had rain jackets because the weather looked pretty average. I told him we did, so he took the two he had brought for us out of his bag. Zev came down and we hit the road.

 Kalaw, Myanmar

I'm sad to say I never caught his name properly, but our guide was awesome. He was very friendly and chatty, but not too chatty if you know what I mean. We started the walk with a wander through town, with him telling us a little bit of the history of the town (which became very popular with the British due to the milder climate), about the plants we were passing, and about the local people.

 Kalaw, Myanmar

Soon, we turned off the road and started walking through private property, past tea plantations, rice paddies, ginger fields, orange groves and peanut farms. As we wound our way up the hills, the view out over the valleys was absolutely stunning, and very similar to home.

 Kalaw, Myanmar

One little quirk of our guide: this guy LOVED taking photos. Of us. Constantly. At every opportunity, he would have us posing for photos, both on our camera and his. By the end of the day, he'd taken 150 photos on our camera, and the same number on his. Every time we stopped, he'd take 10 photos. It was hilarious, and slightly uncomfortable. If I were a richer woman, I would've bought that man a camera.

 Kalaw, Myanmar

After about 2 hours, we came out onto a road with a small shop and a beautiful view, and took a quick break (and some photos, of course). It had started to rain a little harder (it had been missing for a while), so we rugged up, putting on sweaters (both), a beanie and gloves (me), and raincoats. Well. Sort of. I reached in to my bag to grab my raincoat, only to discover it wasn't in there. The man had specifically asked if we'd packed them, and I'd said yes. Oh dear. He ended up insisting I wear his raincoat, which was an enormous pink poncho which went over me and my bags and covered me to my knees. Sadly this left him raincoat-less, and me feeling incredibly guilty for the rest of the day.

 Kalaw, Myanmar

From here, we began walking through small local villages, but although there were a few people out in the fields, the rain meant that most people were indoors. Within about 20 minutes,we had made it to a local school, and our guide took us inside. It covered grades 1-5, and had 27 students, all sharing one classroom with three teachers. The kids seemed to love having us there, interrupting their lesson to sing us songs. The teachers looked less impressed, but were very gracious nonetheless. The kids were incredibly cute though, and seemed to be having a great time.

 Kalaw, Myanmar

We carried on walking for about another hour, when our guide took us to his friends' house. We were ushered in, given tea and snacks, and.... Had a photoshoot! It was pretty weird, but very funny. We were in the house of a local couple who seemed to understand English pretty well, but couldn't speak it. First of all they dressed us up in their 'young people' clothes, which was formal attire like you'd wear on a special occasion. Then our guide spent about 10 minutes taking photos of us. Next, our outfits were flashed up into wedding outfits - as in what you'd get married in. The photoshoot that followed that must've taken about 20 minutes. Together, apart, inside, outside, looking at the camera, looking at the view - it was as exhausting as having our photos taken on our actual wedding day! We were relieved to eventually sit down and drink our tea.

 Kalaw, Myanmar

We moved on, continuing down the road for another 20 minutes until we reached our lunch spot. We sat outside in the rain under a little gazebo, and had chapati, curry, and bean soup for lunch with a spectacular view.

 Kalaw, Myanmar
 Kalaw, Myanmar

On the road again 30 minutes later, we had a change of pace of we headed back to town through the forest. Within about 2 hours we were back to the road, and about 40 minutes after that, we had made it back to the hotel, damp and muddy, but in high spirits. Of course, another photoshoot followed, this time with the guesthouse owner hovering in the background, instructing the photographer to stand further back so we had the hotel sign in the photos.

 Kalaw, Myanmar

We spent the evening finally booking our flights home. We've been procrastinating that for a while, largely because we weren't sure whether or not we would return home through Abu Dhabi. Our main motivation for doing so was to visit Will and Grace, but we learned that our poor timing meant that Will is away, and Grace is busy, so there would be little point. In the end, we decided we would head that way another time, instead opting for the more direct route home from Bangkok via Melbourne. So we are now officially leaving South East Asia on Tuesday 28th July, a full three months later than we intended. We're very excited about seeing everyone, and getting the ball rolling for a move to the U.S.

This morning, we were grabbing some quick breakfast before our bus ride to Bagan, and our guide was there again, waiting for another group. Unbelievably, they took still more photos as we put on our shoes and headed off down the road.

Today's bus ride was pretty hideous, and I spent most of the first two hours with my face hovering over a plastic bag, thinking I was going to puke. After a quick stop, I recovered, but the guy on the other side of the aisle got rid of his lunch. A long 6.5 hours later, we arrived in Bagan and checked in.

Yet again, we went on a laundry pilgrimage, only to be told that every where in town charges per piece of laundry, which would be ridiculous given the huge amount we have. Eventually we negotiated to 7000 kyat ($7) with a local laundry man for the whole bag. Fingers crossed he remember the negotiations when we go back tomorrow to pay and pick it up...

After dinner, we wandered across the road to throw the frisbee for a bit in the setting sun on a field in front of some temple ruins - pretty amazing. Within about 2 minutes, a kid and a guy pulled up on a motorcycle, and the kid hopped off and came over to watch. Soon, he'd joined in, and had recruited his uncle. We all threw together for about 45 minutes, until it got too dark to see.

Tomorrow, we're heading out to see the temples of Bagan. Lots of people we've met liken them to Angkor, only better, because there are fewer people.

We'll let you know next time!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 18th July 2016)

In and around Inle Lake

CURRENT LOCATION: Kalaw, Myanmar

Zev:

After our epic blunder in the super weird and super new capital, it was such a relief to arrive at our accommodation in Nyaungshwe (I will refer to it as Nshwe for my own sanity). On our first evening we ventured 2km into town on our free hire bikes to get a decent meal of pizza and pasta, which was surprisingly good, especially after the decidedly average food we had eaten the last few days. A bit of comfort was welcomed. We returned to three staff members helping us to park our bicycles, asking us how our dinner was and if we wanted any help with organising our plans for the next few days. This was also very nice. Sam was starting to feel under the weather so we decided to wait until the morning to make any plans. 

Lucky we did. Sam woke up feeling awful and could barely manage to sit up in bed. This made for a rest day in our wonderful hotel room. Again the staff at our guesthouse were so great. They made Sam breakfast and brought it to her to have in bed. They asked if we needed a doctor. They checked up on us during the day. They were so nice! While Sam was in bed fighting off the Black Death, I cycled into town to find some lunch and top up our cash supplies. I rode all the way through town to scope out all the possible lunch options and in doing so found an ATM. I withdrew the maximum amount at that ATM, which was 150,000 kyat (pronounced "chi­at"). This is about $150 U.S. so not a big deal. Except that the largest denomination of currency that they regularly use is 5000 kyat. So there I am standing in the middle of town with a wad of bills as if I've just joined the cast of Goodfellas. I shove as much of the cash as I can in my wallet and neatly fold the rest into my pocket. At this point I am suspicious of every person that walks by. Not used to carrying this much moolah. I find a place that does some nice French­-style sandwiches to take back to husk of a human that is my wife. Of course, the moment I pay for the sandwiches it starts to rain. Knowing that I can cycle back to our accommodation in about 7 minutes I literally get on my bike, sprinting to hopefully get home before the inevitable monsoon hits and I become a drowned rat. You guessed it. I get 400m from home and the universe throws a big old water balloon on me. Luckily I had them put our food in a plastic bag. The screes of bills in my pocket did not fare so well. But, it's not as bad as all that. It was actually really fun getting caught in the epic rainstorm. It's not like I was on a way to a business meeting or something. 

Sam was feeling brave enough to venture 20 feet across the courtyard to the restaurant at our guesthouse to get some dinner. And because I'm such a nice guy, she's an adult, and plus she was sick all day, she was allowed to have strawberry ice cream for dinner. I chose the curry. 

The next morning Sam woke feeling decidedly better but not 100%, so we chose the more relaxing option of a day long boat cruise on Inle Lake. This was awesome. Our boat driver, Captain That, looked to be no older than 18. He was wearing traditional dress which consisted of super baggy black and turquoise pants, a vest, and aviators. He was pretty cool. His boat was probably 6m or maybe 8m long with a big long tail­-style outboard motor. This thing went like the clappers and had the soundtrack to go with it. In this boat we visited many different sites, including villages, pagodas, and shops, a lotus silk farm and weaving shop, a boat builder, a team of local cigar (called cheroot) making women, a local restaurant, a silversmith and jeweller, a woman who belonged to the "long neck lady" tribe who was working on a loom, 2 pagodas, a floating vege garden in the middle of the lake, and the temple where the monks USED to train cats to jump through hoops (but don't any more, but there are still lots of cats). It was an action packed day and we even got witness the famous "Leg Fishermen" of Inle lake. These guys get their name because of the way they paddle their tiny boats using their leg to guide the paddle through water while balancing on the other foot at the front end of the boat. It's an amazing thing to witness. They are in such control, even while holding a 1.5m giant bamboo fishing basket. Some of these fishermen employ the strategy of whacking the water with their paddles to stun the fish near the surface and then they simply collect the stupefied fish. This was bizarre and fascinating to see. The lake itself was also interesting as it was dotted with lake weeds and grasses, breaking it up, making it look a bit smaller that it actually is. 

 Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar
 Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar
 Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar
 Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar


That night we had an accidental dinner at the guesthouse restaurant while attempting to order some snacks and watch the live stream of the NZ women's under 23 frisbee team play Germany. It was lost in translation... But the short version of the story is that they had a "chicken nugget burger" on their menu, we wanted chicken nuggets, but what we call chicken nuggets does not equate to what they put in this burger. So chicken burgers with no buns for dinner then! I can think of worse scenarios! Unfortunately the internet connect was not sufficient to watch the stream, but we caught the end of the game watching a bunch of coloured blobs shift around on the screen in very, very low resolution (all their connection could manage). 

The next day Sam was feeling good enough for us to go for a bicycling adventure. We hit the road heading for the natural hot springs of Nshwe. It was a considerably more difficult ride than we had anticipated, compounded by the simplicity of our bikes (no gears and iffy brakes) and the bumpy, hilly roads. But about 50 minutes later we arrived at the hot springs and it was a lot nicer than we imagined... Which given our previous experiences in SE Asia, was a maybe a stream with some wooden planks to sit on. It was a proper hot spring spa type scenario, not too dissimilar to the Polynesian Baths in Rotorua. We take to the "foreigner" wing of the complex where we had some quick showers to wash off our bike ride, and then soak in the hot springs. It must've been close to 30°C outside the hot springs, so it was a bit counterintuitive, but we wanted to do it anyways. There were 4 pools. And oh my god were they hot! The hottest one clocked in at 40°C. Luckily there was one pool that was at a bearable (just!) 35°C. The pools were situated in way that we had a stunning view of the lake and the hills that surround it. We met a nice French Canadian couple and exchanged travel stories and relaxed in the pool, and had cold drinks for a few hours. Not a bad way to spend the day! 

 Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar


After this we rode our bikes about 1km to a sign that said "boat hire" written on a piece of scrap wood. There was a guy on a motorbike who asked if we needed a boat to the other side of the lake. Perfect! This was our plan! He told us to follow him down a muddy path, past a bunch of stilted homes, along some rickety half­-assed bridges, where finally found about 4 boats crammed on a small canal that led into the lake. He spent a good 5 minutes freeing his boat from among the others and we piled our bikes in. It was a relaxing 15 minute journey across the lake. He kindly dropped us off at a local restaurant and unloaded our bikes at the end of a very long, wooden jetty while we ordered some lunch. I know we've mentioned this before, but, the people in Myanmar are so kind, friendly, and just generally beautiful people! We ate some lunch and watched the locals on their boats weaving through the canals and into the lake. It was sunny and beautiful. After lunch we got to ride our bikes along the epic jetty where we met a gang of friendly locals. One of them, a young man named Eggo, spoke great English and introduced himself to us. We had a conversation with him in English and then he taught us some Burmese! His friends all laughed and smiled at our attempts to recite the phrases Eggo gave us. It was a really nice experience. After we said our goodbyes, we had an 11km cycle back to our guesthouse in the late afternoon sun. A very good day indeed. 

 Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar


The next day we woke up early to catch the morning train to Kalaw. Our guesthouse arranged a taxi to take us to the train station. We arrived at the train station at 7.56am for what we thought was a 8.30am train. However, once we unloaded our bags from the taxi, and our driver pointed to his watch, pointed to a train at the platform and said, in broken English, what sounded like "Hurry!" We realised it was probably an 8am train... No worries though, we got two tickets for $3NZD and boarded the train. We had virtually the whole carriage to ourselves, sharing it with a single monk for the first hour before he alighted. The train was old and the tracks were uneven. This made for a hilariously wobbly ride. It was so much fun, and the Myanmar countryside was just breathtaking. Rice paddies, corn fields, rolling hills, mountains in the distance, and so many locals going about their daily lives. The train had a max speed of what felt like 25km, so it was on more than one occasion that we would lock eyes with a local who would instantly become delighted with having seen a white person. They would shout, wave, laugh, scream, jump up and down, it was awesome. Sometimes while we are here the constant staring and sticking out like a sore thumb is unnerving, but today it was great! This was by far my favourite journey of our 6 month trip! 3 hours later we arrived in Kalaw. At approximately 1500m altitude it was immediately cooler. I better leave it there and save Kalaw for the next entry. 

Lots of love,
Z & S
xx x

(Original post date: 17th July 2015)

What... Is going on...

CURRENT LOCATION: Nyaungshwe, Myanmar

Sam:

We were entering the weirdest place in the world. The bus took us down massive highways of up to 16 lanes, which were completely empty. Welcome to Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar!

But isn't the capital of Myanmar Yangon (or Rangoon), I hear you cry?! Au contraire! On 6th November 2005, the administrative capital of Myanmar was officially moved from Yangon to Naypyitaw. Construction started on the city in secret in 2002 (when the country was still a military dictatorship), and the city is estimated to be 4,800 square kilometres - that's six times the size of New York City. Everything is super sized. There are 20 lane highways stretching as far as the eyes can see. Enormous hotels, many of which are still under construction, line the highways. But there are no cars, and no people. While the official population of the city is 1 million, many suggest that this report is grossly exaggerated by a government desperate to attract residents and tourists, and to justify spending $4 billion on its construction. This kind of opulence can only be described as criminal, when set in one of the poorest countries in the world. Locals residents have reported (anonymously of course) that the city largely exists for government and military officials. Others who live and work there are unhappy, and only live there because they can earn money. They describe the city as uninteresting.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

The capital was moved largely without reason - or at least without a good one. Some describe it as a vanity project from the then-leader Than Shwe, or perhaps a sign of his developing dementia. Some theories suggest that the paranoid leaders wanted to move the capital away from the sea, to protect against attacks from the U.S. Government. Others still think that the move was made away from crowded Yangon to make it more difficult for people to stage political protests. The parliament buildings in Naypyitaw are huge, but are surrounded by huge fences, armed guards, and a moat. Yet another rumour says that the government received consultation from North Korea about building a huge tunnel network under the city, to allow safe passage for officials in the event of an uprising. One last rumour: the highways are so huge to allow planes and helicopters to land on them as crowd control during anti-government protests or other such disturbances. Another trick to prevent public gatherings is having the city split into zones: the accommodation zone, military zone, political zone, residential zone... There is no central square or town in which to congregate. An Indian journalist referred to it as a 'dictatorship by cartography'.

The government began moving ministries and departments from Yangon to Naypyitaw in November 2005, meaning that anyone working in any of those departments had to move to Naypyitaw. Most were unhappy though, as the city wasn't finished - there were no schools, and many other amenities were missing. Some amenities were hastily completed, but the city remains a work in progress.

We found out about Naypyitaw from our good friends Gareth and Natalie, who sent us an article about it a couple of months ago. We decided to take a small detour and check it out for a day. Natalie and Gareth also just got engaged - YAY!!! Natalie and Gareth, please know that we hold you both completely responsible for everything that follows, and that the quality of your wedding gift will reflect that.

We got off at the bus station, and managed to negotiate a reasonable taxi fare to get us to our hotel. We set off again, back down the massive, deserted highways with huge roundabouts, and still no cars or people. Eventually we pulled up to an enormous hotel. Things were looking good! We checked in, finding that the staff spoke minimal English, and that we seemed the be the only people in the hotel. Despite that, there were about 20 staff members at various places throughout the hotel. The staff were friendly though, and we were shown to our room - which of course was as far away as humanly possible, and up three flights of stairs. Waiting at our door were two giggling girls, but we headed in and relished the air conditioning. Our room was huge, and nice enough, but really odd. Given that the whole city was built 10 years ago, and no one comes here, you'd expect it to be pristine. Instead, the room looked dated and cheaply made, and bathroom was pretty gross (and smelled a bit of wee). The shower however was glorious - a massive shower head with enough water pressure to shoot you in to another room. Over the course of the next half hour, I'm pretty sure every staff member made a visit to our room. 'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering a toothbrush.  'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering some extra instant coffee sachets.  'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering our room key.  'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering a bottle of water.  'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering another bottle of water. A different person every time, and clearly they were all there just to have a nosey at the strange white people. Eventually, once all the staff had had a good look, we got a little peace.

After settling in, we wandered over to reception to ask a few questions. This proved difficult, until the reception staff managed to track down the one staff member who spoke any English. Her English wasn't great, but it was better than anyone else's, and better than our Burmese. Our first question was about bus tickets. We wanted to leave the day after tomorrow, and go to Kalaw. I had tried googling it, but no information was forthcoming. The staff didn't know whether a bus ran there, but the English speaking girl seemed to think that the bus didn't run here, but it did run close, and we'd be able to organise our own transport from there. That didn't sound that great to us, without knowing exactly where it would drop us, so we said we'd have a think about it and let them know what we wanted to do. Our next question was laundry: where and how much? Great news: here, and free! We had read about free motorbikes we could borrow. No problem! And our next major issue: food. They had a restaurant open 24 hours, the. They mentioned something about BBQ and karaoke, but we couldn't quite make it out. This place is amazing!!!!!!! We went back to our room and grabbed our laundry, which was promptly taken off us by the three girls loitering outside our room, then headed out to the restaurant.

We sat down at the restaurant, alone, of course, and were given a menu by a boy who looked about 12. Then he did the typical South East Asian thing where he stood there, waiting for us to order. We hadn't even had a chance to look at the single menu we'd been given. To buy ourselves some time, we ordered drinks to get rid of him. "Two cokes?", we asked. "Juice?", he replied. "No, Coca Cola?". "Coffee?". Ugh. "Sprite?" Success!! He ran off to get our drinks. When he returned, we were still deciding. "2000", he said. "Sorry?", we asked. "Drinks 2000 kyat. You pay now." So here, at the table in the restaurant, waiting to order our dinner, we had to pay for our drinks. Weird. So we ordered dinner. He boy walked over to the phone, and called someone. More weird. Again, as we're getting used to, a few minutes after we'd ordered, he came back over, pointed to the menu and shook his head. Apparently they didn't have any pork. We tried again. We were starving, and at this point here wasn't much we wouldn't have eaten. 20 minutes later our food turned up. We chewed on our beef with garlic. And chewed. And chewed. And chewed. It was like eating a sandal. But it was food, so we were happy. Ish.

We headed back to our room, and enjoyed the quick internet, catching up on emails and face times. We turned on the TV and saw that Back to the Future II was on, so we settled in to watch it. Except the TV kept crapping out, so we abandoned it. Zev decided to take advantage of the amazing shower. As he stood up, he noticed the floor of half the room was flooded. A quick inspection and we realised the air conditioning unit was leaking really badly. We called reception and tried to ask them to come over and see, but they thought we were ordering room service. Zev took some photos on his iPad, and went down to reception to attempt to explain. He managed to get across that we needed to change rooms, and they obliged, although they insisted that in the entire empty hotel, there were no more double rooms left, only twins. Riiiiiight....

I had stayed in the room while Zev sorted this, and 10 minutes after he left, a man walks in and stands in the doorway, with Zev following shortly behind. Zev explains we're moving rooms, and the man stands in the doorway as we pack. Weird and awkward. He shows us to our new room, three doors down. By this stage, I'm not a very happy camper, so I'm glad when he's gone and we can settle in. 2 minutes later: knock knock knock - our new room key. Eventually we were left in peace, and settled in for some sleep in preparation for our day of exploring.

Until midnight. When the karaoke started. We were literally in the middle of nowhere, 15kms from anything else, and we appeared to be the only two guests in the entire hotel. Presumably it was the staff then, serenading us until 1.30am. What a delight.

The delight continued at 9am, when, after a pretty crappy sleep we were woken by pounding at the door. "Just a second", while we sleepily tried to make ourselves decent enough to open the door. BANG BANG BANG. "Hang on a minute." BANG BANG BANG. "JUST WAIT!!!" We threw open the door. Our waiter from the night before stood there "Breakfast". "Yes, what about it? In here? At the restaurant?" "Breakfast." Riiiight. We shut the door, and grumpily got dressed and headed over for breakfast. Oh, and noticed that the AC in this room leaked too, just not as bad.

It was buffet style, so I opened the first container to see what was on offer - 6 flies flew out. Onto the next container. Eggs. Then rice. Then noodles. Then unidentifiable 'food' substance. I secured myself 6 pieces of watermelon for breakfast. Zev braved some rice.

We went downstairs to sort out our bus ticket, I'd found information online that we could get from Naypyitaw to Nyaungshwe, which was where we wanted to head after Kalaw. It was 20ish kms from Kalaw, so we figured if we could bus there, we could make our way back to Kalaw from there. We went to reception to ask about the tickets, but sadly the English speaking girl wasn't there. Luckily the receptionist managed to ring a ticket agent who spoke English. "You want to go to Kalaw, and then in to Nyaungshwe?", he asked. I explained that ideally, we wanted to go to Kalaw, but if we couldn't, then Nyaungshwe would be fine. He informed us that the bus for Kalaw left most days, at 11.30pm, and arrived at 2am. That didn't sound ideal, so we asked about Nyaungshwe. He said he thought the bus ran every day, one in the morning and one in the evening, but he'd need to check the times and prices. I asked that he book us two tickets on the morning bus to Nyaungshwe the following day. He seemed confused about whether we wanted to go to Kalaw or Nyaungshwe, but I did my best to get it across to him. He said he'd get back to us once he'd booked them. He spoke to the receptionist again, and she hung up. We asked if she would let us know whether he managed to book the tickets. She stared at us blankly. We wandered off to our room to prepare for the day, unsure of whether we had a ticket for the bus the next day, and where it would be going if we did.

We attempted showers, but sadly the redeeming feature of the amazing shower in our first room was not shared by our second. The bracket holding the shower head was broken, so you had to hold it by hand - the water pressure was so low that if you left it attached, the water ran down the wall. Excited to be getting out of this shit hole, we headed down to the free motorbike.

The first thing I noticed was that the brake was hanging off the handlebar. Not such a big deal, since it was the front brake, and the back brake was a pedal, I put the key in the ignition and turned it. It wouldn't turn. I took the key out. It was bent. By now I was furious. I hadn't eaten a proper meal since the night before we left Yangon - we'd missed breakfast to catch the bus, didn't manage to order lunch because they didn't have anything on the menu, and dinner and breakfast were crap. I hadn't slept due to the karaoke-filled fun. And to top it off, this hotel was one off the most expensive places we'd stayed in 5 months. In short, I felt the red mist descending. I went inside. "The motorbike doesn't work." All seven staff behind the counter stared at me. I may have lost my temper a little. "The air conditioning still leaks, we're in twin beds, the television doesn't work, the shower is rubbish, the food is terrible, and the motorbike, which is the ONLY REASON we picked this hotel, doesn't work. We are NOT HAPPY." That they understood. I felt bad, but my god, this was ridiculous. I was put on the phone with an English speaking man. I have no idea if he worked there, or whether he was just a friend of theirs who happened to speak English that they were using as a translator. I re-listed my complaints for him, explaining that, for the price we're playing, we expect better. I told him that this was not a good hotel. He agreed. At that point, I could've climbed down the phone and choked him. He offered to send someone over to fix the motorbike. I explained that we weren't getting on the death trap, and they needed to sort out a driver. I hung up the phone and went to sit on the couch. As I sat, I disturbed about 50 flies, apparently relaxing after breakfast.

One thing I should point out: I don't care if the air conditioning leaks. I don't care if the shower is crap. I don't care if the bathroom smells like pee and isn't that clean. I don't care if the TV doesn't work. I don't care if the staff are invasive. I don't care if the food isn't great. I don't care if the free motorbike doesn't work. I don't care about late night karaoke. I don't care if the staff don't know about getting buses to the next destination. And I definitely don't think that the staff should all speak English. I DO care if the hotel is overpriced AND the air conditioning leaks AND the shower is crap AND the bathroom smells like pee and isn't that clean AND the TV doesn't work AND the staff are invasive etc etc. Top it all off with no one speaking English, and it's a recipe for disaster.

After we'd been sitting there for about five minutes, a frightened looking boy brought over two glasses of juice and two glasses of water. We took them and he backed away quickly. A few minutes later, a man turned up with a key. "I have a new motorbike for you, it's nice." We headed outside and it was nice. He gave us a quick run down, and we were nearly ready to go, when we asked if it had gas. He tried to lift the seat to check. And tried. And tried. Three minutes later he managed to pop the seat. Luckily, the tank was full, so we were off!

Once we were on the road, we started to feel a bit better. Being in the is completely surreal city with just us on a motorbike was pretty cool. Our first stop: Uppatansanti Pagoda.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

The pagoda was consecrated in March 2009, and is a direct copy of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Weird. We cruised the empty highways, and eventually found our way to the pagoda - more by sight than by map. Since it's basically the only thing in the city, you can see it from everywhere. We pulled into the carpark, and paid some delighted men $2 to park our motorbike there. We walked along to the entrance, locals giving themselves whiplash turning to stare at us as we passed. Three teenaged boys stopped us for a photo. We dropped off our shoes and socks, and went to get some clothes. When we left the hotel, we'd forgotten that we'd need to be appropriately covered for the pagoda - not that it would've mattered, because all of our clothes were in the wash. I thought I'd be fine, in long shorts with my knees covered, and a tee shirt. Zev had on long shorts, but a singlet, so he put on his rain jacket in the 30° heat. We walked over to check if we passed the clothing check, and apparently we did not. Quickly, we were being dressed in local sarong-like garb called longyi. And I mean being dressed. We were both bear hugged from behind, being tied in, as if we couldn't manage knots ourselves. After we loosened our new outfits so we could breathe, we started up the stairs.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

At the top, there were probably about 30 people in the pagoda, many of whom literally laughed and pointed at us. We looked ridiculous. We went round to the far side of the pagoda, and it was amazing. The gold leaf shine brightly against the blue sky and white clouds, and we couldn't see or hear another soul. The bells at the top of the pagoda were ringing. The wind, and the birds were chirping. It was really beautiful.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

Once we'd refuelled our solitude and were prepared to deal with more stares and laughter, we headed back down, returning our sarongs and gathering our shoes. While we stopped for a drink across the road, and snacked on unidentifiable delicious deep fried morsels, I stopped to pat a monkey that a young girl was bottle feeding. Apparently I never learn - it bit me, because all monkeys are assholes.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

We collected our motorbike (which by the way was another semi-automatic, and I was getting MUCH better at driving it) and set off in search of the Gem Museum, the number two attraction in Naypyidaw. After a couple of wrong turns, a friendly security guard showed us where to park, and we headed in.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

As we paid our entry fee ($11.20 for some weird reason. We literally could not stop saying, "This is so weird!" to each other), we had to sign in and out, including the times - perhaps a throwback to the time, not so long ago when, as a tourist, you had to log your every movement (every guest house, every bus, every attraction) with the government. We were presented with lanyards, labelling us as tourists (as if there would be any confusion), despite us being the only two people there. We walked into a huge room, filled with darkened display cases and about 30 more giggling women. Side note: everywhere we've been in Naypyitaw, there have been a billion staff members, and no people. I have no idea how, or even if, these people get paid.

Anyway, the women initially clumped together in the middle of he room, staring, laughing, and watching us. As we moved around though, they scattered and scurried around, switching on the lights of the cases we were looking at, and trailed behind us, switching them off again as we moved away. After about half an hour of checking out the gems, I started having a bit of fun. I'd walk over to a distant display case so they'd have to hurry over and switch the lights on, then as soon as they did that, I'd walk away. I considered it fair play for them laughing at us.

By now, it was lunch time, and Zev was starving. When I said earlier that we ate delicious deep fried snacks? It was actually me really, Zev didn't have many. Since we hadn't had a decent meal since Yangon, we did some quick restaurant searching on the map. There are about 5 restaurants in Naypyidaw, and close to us was one called Tasmania Burgers and Fries. Worth a shot. I know you all think we eat too many burgers, and you're right, but over here our choices are rice, noodles, or burgers. So by that logic, a third of our meals should be burgers. I'm happy with those odds.

Tasmania was awesome. Zev had a most enjoyable chicken burger, and we both stuffed our faces with fries. A good meal and an enjoyable morning of cruising had lifted our mood. We decided to head back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon, then head out to the fountain park at dusk, where they switch on all the fountains and play music - it sounded like fun.

On the way home, we detoured to parliament. This stretch of road was the weirdest. It was 20 lanes across, with no median divider, and we were the only people on it. The parliament building itself was huge, and set miles back from the road, surrounded by a moat with two bridges and a huge fence. We pulled over to take some photos and play fearlessly on the road. Zev even had a turn driving the motorbike!  As we headed back to the hotel, with Zev driving, he started wobbling quite badly. Initially I thought it was him, then I thought it was the road. Nope and nope. We pulled over. A flat fucking tyre. Naypyidaw is THE WORST.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

We had no way of contacting the hotel - I don't have a SIM card, and they don't speak English anyway. We decided we'd just have to ride it home with the flat tyre. A wobbly and slow km later, we decided this wasn't going to work. God only knows what they'd charge us if we ruined the tyre, or even worse, the wheel.

More map consulting showed us we were 400m from the National Library. I rode the motorbike across, and Zev walked. We headed in and THANK GOD found two people who spoke English. We explained the situation and the two ladies kindly called the hotel for us and explained that we had a flat tyre, and needed to be collected. She told us they were in the way, and we should wait outside.

We sat on the steps, with the nice library lady checking on us periodically. While we waited, all sorts of other completely weird things happened. At one point, a bus pulled up and started unloading rubbish bins, construction equipment and giant tubs. While this was going on, two guys came us the driveway pushing broken scooters, straight up the wheelchair ramp and into the library. Hot on their heels were two guys pushing wooden platforms on wheels with floral archways on top. The bus left. The floral archways went into the library, taking some chunks out of the plasterwork on the way. What the hell is going on??

About an hour after our call, two guys turn up on a motorbike. While we were hoping they'd send a car so that we could leave while they fixed the tyre, we were grateful anyone turned up at all. We watched as one of the guys prised the tyre off the wheel and pulled out the inner tube. He looked at the other guy. They talked quickly for a minute. "Wait here." They hopped back on the bike and sped off. From what we could tell, they had the wrong sized inner tube. Sigh...

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

So we waited. And waited. The library closed. The staff waited on the steps for their ride home. The bus came, and the nice library lady wished us luck and said goodbye. We waited. We listened to a podcast. And we waited. An hour later, one of the men returned, and continued changing the tyre. When he was nearly done (he was putting the new inner tube into the tyre), the second man arrived on another motorbike, and told us to drive it back. Thank god. Total time waiting at the library: 2.5 hours.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

We drove back to the hotel (carefully!), and returned bike number two. Now for he next battle: did we have a bus ticket out of this hell hole. Yes, we did!! We couldn't get a bus to Kalaw, but we were booked on a bus to Nyaungshwe the following morning, and were to be in reception at 7am. We headed up to the restaurant, grabbed two very large, hard earned beers, and returned to our room - this time making sure to put up the Do Not Disturb sign. Our laundry was even waiting there for us.

 Napyitaw, Napyidaw, Myanmar

Too frightened to return to the restaurant, we survived on what we'd eaten already that day, and some left over biscuits from the bus ride to Naypyidaw. We settled in for an early night, and suffered through another round of karaoke lullabies, counting down the hours until we could leave.

We were up at 6.30am, and as we finished our packing at 6.45am, we got another wake up call in the form of more banging at the door, telling us to hurry up. As if we had any desire to linger. We headed down, checked out (although when I handed over the key and told them we were checking out, the stared at me blankly as if they had no idea what I was doing), and climbed into the taxi which drove us to the bus station. We were ushered into a waiting room and left to our own devices. 20 minutes later, a bus pulled in, and we were told to get on, it was heading to Nyaungshwe.

While we sat and waited for the bus to leave, we accidentally caught sight of two naked men getting changed in the bus next door. What better way to end our time in the weirdest place in the world.

The bus set off early, and as the road began to pass below us, we relaxed a little. We had done it. We had escaped.

We were both feeling a little ill, with sore throats and headaches, but nothing too bad. We chalked it up to not eating or sleeping well, and our bodies telling us to get the hell out of Naypyitaw.

The bus stopped and we managed to get a tasty lunch, then we carried on our merry way. Straight through Kalaw. Where we originally wanted to go, but were told we couldn't get a bus to. Now we had accommodation booked in Nyaungshwe, so we had to carry on, even though we'd have to back track later. One last point for the worst hotel in the world.

Soon enough, we pulled into Shwenyaung, the confusingly named town 15 kms from Nyaungshwe. We knew that because we have a map. The bus worker approached. "Nyaungshwe", he said. "No, Shwenyaung", we replied. "15kms to Nyaungshwe." "Yes", he replied, smiling, as he unloaded our bags onto the side of the road. So not only did the bus run straight through where we ACTUALLY wanted to go, it DIDN'T run to the place that was our second choice. Naypyidaw, you win this round.

We managed to talk a taxi driver into taking us for $7, down from his usual $8 (what a saving) - doubling the price of our journey from Naypyitaw to Nyaungshe. As we were driving, we told him where we were staying, and he said that was out of town a little, so it would cost an extra $2. We talked him down to an extra $1. My already frayed patience was wearing thin. 

Next was the entry fee. We knew you had to pay $10 to enter the lake area, which is 10,000 kyat. We pulled up to pay, and were informed that if you pay in local currency, it's 12,000 kyat each (so $12). This place.... We paid, and spent the rest of the taxi ride in stony silence.

The day was completely redeemed by our new hotel. The staff were amazing. Friendly and kind, they definitely go the extra mile, and our room is beautiful. We headed into town on the free bikes for dinner, and stuffed our faces with pizza and pasta, returning to the hotel fat and happy.

On the way in, we met the manager, who apologised for not meeting us when we checked in. He asked if we wanted him to organise any tours etc for us today, and I explained that I wasn't feeling well, so we planned to wait and see how I was doing in the morning. He asked if I wanted him to call a doctor, and when I declined, he told us to call reception at any time if I changed my mind.

While I slept like a log, I woke up this morning feeling like death. I have a fever, chills, a productive cough and a throat that feels like sandpaper. Zev went to the restaurant for breakfast, which is included in our room price, and he and he hotel staff organised breakfast in bed for me. A couple of cups of tea, a nice hot shower, some food, and paracetamol have me feeling more human, but today will still be a quiet one. Fingers crossed for a bright eyed and bushy tailed me tomorrow morning.

At the very least, thank god we won't wake up in Naypyidaw!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 13th July 2015)