Monday, 31 December 2012

Thailand – The first Thai New Year


December 30-January 2

Another year of globetrotting is coming to an end, which means it is time for the world’s biggest party – New Year’s Eve. After the cold celebrations in Almaty last year, I opted for the warmth and wonder of Thailand, and an unforgettable night in Bangkok.



I had told many people that I was going to see the final seconds of 2012 in Kuala Lumpur. This was not true. The reason for this white lie was to maintain an element of surprise. You see, it has been a long time since I sprung a surprise on an unsuspecting familiar face. Surprises have been few and far between in 2012, in part due to expending so much energy on making sure my parents had no idea that their peaceful trip to Thailand was about to be hijacked by a Welsh-Kazakh hurricane.



My sister, being the sneaky so-and-so that she has become partly due to the influence of her two older brothers, was in on the plan for a while. Our powers of persuasion were even enough to overcome the fact that I was tagged in a Facebook photo which clearly stated ‘Thailand 2012’ whilst I was in Myanmar, and unable to delete it before my Dad had logged on and seen it.



Consequently, I arrived in a sweltering Bangkok thinking that the game was up. On the bright side, I also touched down knowing I had a place to stay. The sofa in my sister’s room in the Shangri-La. 5 stars and then some. The comfiest bed I had for my entire trip. We were on one of the highest floors, which offered tremendous views of the river.


My parents have stayed in this place a couple of times, and my familiarity with the events in the Shangri-La Bangkok, due to a previous stay in 2007, allowed me to plot my big surprise. Between 5.30pm and 7.30pm the top floor of the hotel offers certain guests drinks and nibbles, which is rarely, if ever, missed by my folks. It was thus on this first evening that I sauntered up behind my Dad – who, clearly still oblivious, didn’t seriously query why my sister had a beer, which she despises, in front of her – and whispered in his ear.



Though irritated that he had been duped, Daddy Cool seemed happy enough to see me. His ire was saved for my poor sister, who didn’t get the sufficient credit she deserved. He enacted a measure of revenge by quite forcibly suggesting I hide under the table for my mother’s arrival. She was shocked to say the least. Mission accomplished!



With the main shock out of the way, my parents then became concerned about their NYE plan. Their tradition for a Thai New Year is to go to a lavish restaurant in the nearby Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The angst was due to the fact that the place would undoubtedly now be fully booked. Alas, I had rectified the problem on my initial, pre-Myanmar visit to Bangkok, so the status quo was maintained.


The setting is rather formal, meaning that the filthy threads I had been sporting in Myanmar were not fit for the occasion. New Year’s Eve was thus spent doing something that would not have been a priority for me – shopping. I opted to make it more entertaining (or annoying, if it’s from my Dad’s perspective) by spending time relaxing in a very thorough massage chair.


Soon it was time for the grand night ahead. Midnight was a while away when we entered the restaurant, but the thought of seven courses suggested that time would not pass particularly slowly.





The food was simply divine – I have never eaten beef so tender and flavoursome as the chunk of juicy meat that constituted just one of the courses. As for the dessert below, it takes the expression ‘Death by Chocolate’ to a new, stratospheric level…



Bangkok’s main attraction when the clock strikes twelve are an assortment of extravagant fireworks fired from boats along the river. Each hotel sends out its own vessel in an attempt to out-illuminate her rivals. The competitiveness leads to a spectacular display.



A fun-filled night ended at approximately 3am, when our hotel inexplicably decided to close their bar. Well, that is how I felt at the time. The following day, of which I spend much of hiding in bed nursing a horrific hangover, led me to think that they had done me a favour.



I thus spent my final day of warmth for six weeks cooped up inside. In spite of this, Bangkok was a fantastic place to bring in the New Year, and it was wonderful to surprise my parents and bring in 2013 with the people I love.



Happy New Year!

Matt

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Myanmar - The first missed flight


December 29-30
Hello everyone!
My time in Myanmar was drawing to a close, so I hopped on an overnight bus to get back to the capital, Yangon. It turns out that my time was drawing to a close sooner than anticipated...




As I’ve mentioned before, accommodation can be tricky in Myanmar. Consequently, I didn’t fancy my chances of finding somewhere to sleep after arriving at the bus station a little before 3am. This resulted in me spending the night curled up in a bus shelter, before leaving shortly after sunrise with two Moroccan travelers who had had a similar idea to me.

I spend what I assumed was my final day in Myanmar relaxing in a park near the imperious Shwedagon Pagoda. The greenery was an unexpected surprise, as were the white elephants that lined one of the ponds. Sweltering in the blazing sunshine was a nice way to spend my final day, though I was keen to avoid the various creepy-crawlies that were snaking through the long grass. You never know what they’re capable of on this side of the world.




The reason I had given myself another night in the big city was to see Myanmar’s shining star basking in the night sky. I have already expressed my admiration for the Shwedagon Pagoda; at night it possesses even more of an aura.





I had managed my money carefully and given myself just enough money to catch the local bus to the airport the following morning. Considering my problems with and the surprising price of accommodation in Myanmar, I was pleased that I had managed to come in under budget. That changed when I got told that my name wasn’t on the list for the flight back to Bangkok. Thinking that was rather peculiar, I rummaged through my dusty bag to find my e-ticket. This unfortunately led to me discovering that my flight was booked for December 29th. The date was December 30th. I’ve arrived a day early for a flight before, but never a day late. Regrettably, the latter is a much worse scenario. $155 later, and with the money I had saved throughout the ten days evaporating quicker than a cloud over the Yangon skyline, I had a plane ticket for the correct day, and exited back to the dizzying city of Bangkok.


I’ve told myself that I stayed a day longer because I enjoyed myself so much. Myanmar is a fascinating country. An increasing number of people are beginning to realise that they are able to travel there. But why do they go? Indeed, why did I go? Thinking about it, there isn’t anything here that can be found in a neighbouring and easier-to-visit country nearby. For the beauty of the temples of Bagan, there is Angkor Wat in Cambodia. For the trekking around in countryside, there are jungles in Chaing Mai, Thailand. For the cheapness of the food and beer, I’ve been told by many that Laos is cheaper. So why bother with Myanmar?






Part of the attraction is the knowledge that so few people visit the country, leaving it as a region untouched by tourism in reality with its neighbours. Of course, this brings about its own challenges, particularly with regards to accommodation. However, the situation is changing. Internet access is better than anticipated, and there are now a few ATMs dotted around the main cities.




Whether an influx of tourists and their money is good for the country is open to debate. The money will need to go to the right places, such as building infrastructure and improving the lives of the local population as opposed to lining the pockets of the top brass. I hope that the country retains the cultures of its regions, from the use of the thanaka to decorate their faces to their obsessive chewing of the betel nut.


The best aspect of visiting is the people that you visit. I have met many genuine, decent and hard-working people who always have a broad smile on their face. People wanted to go the extra mile to help me if I encountered any trouble, and were always keen to practise their English. The people I travelled with, particularly Andrew and Kaely, also made my journey much more pleasurable.





You have to be prepared for the unexpected if you visit Myanmar. If you come with an open mind and heart, it can be a very enjoyable country to experience. You may wish to wait until there are more beds available. If you do, I hope that the country hasn’t changed too much into just another stop on the Southeast Asian travel route, and that the people retain the same warmth rather than chase your euro or dollar. Just don’t miss your flight!


Love you all

Matt

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Myanmar – The first spicy Shan food


December 26

 
Hello everyone!

 
An overnight bus was due to take me east from Bagan, towards another of Myanmar’s points of interest – Inle Lake. Many people stop off at nearby towns with a view to enduring a three-day trek to the lake. I didn’t have time to accomplish this, but still wanted to immerse myself in the countryside of Myanmar. I thus disembarked at one of the main trekking points, a village called Kalaw.

 
 

 
My overnight bus arrived so far ahead of schedule that I was able to get a bed and a decent night’s sleep. In the morning to tried to get future bus tickets sorted and then, just before 11am, set off on a day trekking with two middle-aged Frenchmen and our guide, a local Sherpa called Wellington. That’s right, Wellington.

 
 

 
As the other two were often speaking in their native tongue, it allowed me to speak our 64-year-old guide as we moved through fields of vegetables. He lived in America – in New York, New Hampshire and Texas respectively – for 14 years before returning home in 1992. He received a university education at Cornell in Ithaca whilst away, and was hungry to learn and chat about education. As this is my field, I obliged, and in turn learnt a bit more about this country.

 

Children in Myanmar study until they are 15, concentrating primarily on Burmese, English and Maths. A year before us, they go to university aged 17, helping their families in the intervening period. Interestingly, most graduates will return home to continue this assistance, rather than progressing to the big cities of Yangon or Mandalay. The picture below is of a primary school that hosts 120 children. A bit smaller than the one I currently work at…

 
 

 
This was being explained to me during what seemed to be a six-hour Biology lesson, where we would stop every 50 metres or so to be told what this tree of that patch produced. The variety of food being sourced locally or close to the Shan region at least, is incredible. From pears to peas, oranges to guavas, avocados to cabbages – it was all in the greenery that we were hiking through.

 
 

 
We stopped in two villages along our circular route. They both highlight the progress being made, but also the work that needs to be done. The dates on the buildings show how recently they were constructed; electricity only arrived in the second village last year.

 
 

 
We were heading towards a gleaming white pagoda when conversation turned to the army. My guide’s comment that many don’t like the army, but won’t say so in ‘civil society’, suggests a reluctance to say anything that can be construed as criticism. The consequences of doing so have already been seen in 2007, when monks protested against the regime led by General Than Shwe. The fatal, brutal events that followed were broadcast worldwide.

 
 




 
A coup in 1962 brought a man called Ne Win to power, and his stranglehold over the country under the guise of a military junta means that people are often wary of criticising the army. Indeed, Wellington told me that the benefits of becoming a soldier – accommodation, education and so on – make it an attractive career.

 
 

 
There is an incredible amount of faith in – and consequently pressure on – Aung San Suu Kyi to bring the country out from the doldrums. She is the son of the revered General Aung Shan, who brokered independence from the British Empire in 1948. Whether she can deliver may be out of her hands, but people are optimistic.


 

 
The hike was peaceful and refreshing – I haven’t been able to gallivant in the countryside for a while…mainly because Kazakhstan doesn’t have much of a ‘countryside’. It’s just about the only reason to hang around in Kalaw: the village itself has little to offer.

 
 
 
I decided to get some local Shan food for dinner. Strangely, I haven’t spoken about food too much up to now. It is very much ‘curry and rice’ or ‘fried noodles’. The soup I received, however, is possibly in the top five hottest and spiciest dishes my pallet has ever touched. It felt like a volcano was erupting in my mouth with each nervous spoonful I directed in.

 

Today, with the much-needed fresh air in my lungs, I learnt a lot and understood more about this country’s past, present and future. The villages we went through can be seen as a metaphor for the country as a whole; progress is being made, but much, much more needs to happen if Myanmar is to fulfil its potential.


Love you all

Matt