Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Our final destination with Dragoman was Bangkok. We had one night here with the group, and then we stayed extra nights to meet up with some friends from our South America trip, who were en route to Myanmar themselves.

We didn't do much sightseeing here, this was predominantly a social interlude, but we did get as far as the Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha. Having seen so many Buddha figures in Myanmar, we found it hard to get excited about the Reclining Buddha, but the palace was quite impressive.

A couple of practical points. Don't be put off by tuk tuk drivers or 'helpful passers by' telling you the palace is closed, as this is just a ruse to get you to go somewhere else. You will need to bear in mind the dress code here. On our visit, and from other accounts, it seems the rules are not always consistently applied, but generally, trousers or skirts must be below the knee, (they may insist on full length,) and shoulders must be covered.

It says that if you wear flip flops then you must have socks on to cover bare feet, but this wasn't enforced on our visit, so perhaps have some in your bag just in case. It does seem a silly requirement when you then have to take shoes and socks off to go inside the buildings. They do have trousers etc to borrow near the gate, but that means more queuing and leaving a deposit.

The Grand Palace was built by King Rama in 1782 and the site covers over 218,000 square metres. The grounds would be very pleasant to walk around, but for the intense heat and general lack of shady places to sit and get a refreshing drink - on which point it is a good idea to bring your own water.

The buildings are varied and some of them quite stunning, but the crowds are huge. The main attraction is Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha was discovered in a Stupa in Chang Rai in 1434. At the time, it was covered in plaster, but someone noticed that the plastic had flaked off on the tip of the nose, showing the green stone beneath. Believing it to be emerald, the plaster was removed; it turned out to be carved from jade, but the name stuck.

The Emerald Buddha has a costume for each of the three seasons, and it changed by the King himself in a special ceremony. as is often the case, photos were not permitted inside, but we got a sneaky one through the window.

Aside from that though, we largely spent time eating and drinking with people from the group or the friends we were meeting. We stayed close to the Khao San Road, so it was easy to get there when we wanted to, but a lot of the time we went out just a few streets away in Sansom, which was a little less frenetic, a bit cheaper, and nicer. And you can get a litre of beer in a can.

Thailand has never been high on our list, partly because it is such an established backpacker and beaches place. Whilst I have no doubt that there will be some beautiful places, (and we are going to have a quick stop in northern Thailand later in the trip,) we have no interest in doing the beach resorts.

Khao San Road really is the backpacker hub, and is filled with people heading to or from exactly those resorts we are avoiding.

It is full of just about every cliche you can imagine, from the teenaged 'first holiday with friend's clan who scream excitedly at everything, through the late twenties/early thirties 'I'm too young to settle down and want to prove I can still party' mobs, to the aging hippies still pretending to be dropouts, despite this being their fortnight holiday before going back to their 9-5 job and their mortgage.

Everywhere you look people are wearing the Thailand uniform of shorts (skimpy for the girls, big and baggy for the guys) or the wide leg elephant print elasticated trousers, and bikini tops or T-shirts - usually tie dyed or with deep meaningful slogans. In most cases, these clothes will never see the light of day again once they get home, but for now, they show just how freespirited and individual their wearers think are.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I am disapproving of the people here, I just find it amusing, and at the same time slightly sad, that all of these 'free spirits' are doing and wearing the same things.

The main street and those nearby are full of western food options, bars and souvenir stalls, so you can have the taste of Thailand without stepping too far out of your comfort zone.

But if you do want a culinary challenge, you can also pick up your fill of fried bugs, such as crickets, cockroaches and scorpions; of course most people just want to take a selfie with these delicacies rather than actually buying and eating them - a fact that the stall holders have cottoned on to, so most now charge a fee for the photo.

This is also the place to get yourself into one of the ping pong shows. Don't mistakenly go to one of these expecting to see people playing table tennis. How can I put this delicately? The ping pong balls here can only be fired by ladies with their legs spread wide. It is apparently quite entertaining, but as many of the women doing these shows have been forced into this and others aspects of the sex trade, and are often treated terribly, it was not something we were willing to condone by going to see.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway

Having crossed into Thailand, we were almost at the end of our Dragoman trip; Kanchanaburi was our only stop before reaching our final destination of Bangkok.

The town itself was nice enough, with some reasonable places to eat, but the main reason to go to the Death Railway Museum, and to visit the nearby and infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.

If you've seen the film of the same name, you'll probably know that the bridge was built during World War II under the command of the Japanese, using the labour of the allied forces prisoners of war. You may also know how terribly badly these men were treated, with many dying from such things as malnutrition, exhaustion cholera, malaria and dysentery, as well as those killed directly by the Japanese.

What you may not know, is that in fact the POWs were much fewer, and better treated, compared to the rest of the labourers who had been brought in from nearby countries.

Reported numbers vary a little, but around 61,811 POWs (30,131 British, 13,004 Australian, 17,990 Dutch and 680 US) were forced to work on the Death Railway, and 12,621 of them (6,904 British, 2,802 Australian, 2,782 Dutch and 133 US) died before the war was over. Many of the Dutch were in fact from the Dutch East Indies, and so they - and importantly the medics amongst them - were more used to the tropical diseases encountered here, which helped their survival rate compared to other nationalities.

The number of POWs though was dwarfed though by that of the Romusha. The Japanese brought in Asian workers from Burma, Thailand other areas such as The Malay Peninsula and Singapore. Some of these men volunteered, having been promised good conditions and good wages, but many were coerced or even simply rounded up and taken. Either way, their working conditions were even worse that that of the POWs.

The number of romusha workers used is unknown, but many sources estimates around 150,000, with 90,000 of them having died; however some sources suggest that numbers may have been as high as 300,000, with as many as half of them dying.

The construction of the 285 mile (415km) length railway, stretching from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, went across incredibly difficult terrain. It was built to provide an alternative route to take supplies into Burma, which had recently been taken by the Japanese. Work commenced, using just hand tools and hard labour, in June 1942 and finished ahead of schedule, on 17 October 1943.

We visited the Death Railway Museum, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, and Bridge 277, or the 'Bridge Over the River Kwai', which more accurately spans the Mae Klong river.

The railway was decommissioned after the war, and the bridge itself was partly destroyed by the Allied forces in 1945, but it has been rebuilt, enabling us to walk across it. I like the idea of it being kept as a memorial to the men who died building the railway, so I was pleased that we would be visiting here.

Unfortunately, as with too many places, there is too much focus on tourism, where it should be on memorial. There is a restaurant overlooking the bridge, and countless souvenir shops peddling all sorts of tacky items. Personally, I would have preferred that this be a place of quiet contemplation, with the emphasis on remembrance.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Burma post script

We really enjoyed Burma for what it was, but at same time, felt that there was so much more that it could be, both as a country and as a tourist destination.

Internally, the country is theoretically a democracy, but in fact the military retains a massive stronghold. Aung San Suu Kyi, aka The Lady, has proven she has the people's vote in the recent election, but as it stands, she cannot be leader due to a piece of government legislation that dictates the president cannot have a foreign spouse or children who have foreign citizenship (her deceased husband was British so her children have British nationality.)

In a recent vote, some softening occurred, but not nearly enough to stop the military from being able to veto her presidency. There is some hope after the outgoing president, Thein Sein, suggested he may support her leadership, but until something concrete changes, it seems that whilst the population would like to have The Lady in power, democracy doesn't extend quite that far.

And then there is the question of the minority groups in Myanmar. The most persecuted is the Rohinga Muslims, who are fleeing from the country in the most awful and dangerous ways, simply because they are not safe in their own homes. We were told accounts of horrific violence, with minor issues being escalated out of all proportion and resulting in terrible persecution and massacres of the Muslim population. And this by Buddhists, who surely we all would expect to be better than that.

But it is not just the Muslims that feel aggrieved. When the British were preparing to leave Burma General Aung San helped negotiate the Panglong Agreement with some of the minority ethnic groups, giving them rights to elements of self governance within the new federal system. However, with the assassination of General Aung San so soon after independence, this treaty was soon disregarded, leading to the formation of a multitude of rebel groups and ongoing tensions between them and the ruling party.

There has been a recent step forward in this, with a peace deal signed with some of the rebel groups, but it is only some, so tensions remain with the remainder, meaning any improvements are likely to be limited, and possibly shortlived.

I would love to see Myanmar become a truly democratic country, and resolve its internal conflicts, but sadly there seems long way to go before that will happen.

If and when it does, perhaps the country can improve its range of attractions for tourists too. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed our trip, but it really is a lot of temples and Buddhas, with a few visits to crafters workshops along the way. The museum in Yangon was good, but only covered history of the kingdom. It would be nice to have some places that could cover the time since then, dealing with the issue of the British Rule, the war,  independence, and the military coup, all the way up to now. There is a fascinating recent history here, but at present it cannot be properly told.

That isn't to say you shouldn't visit now. As long as you are happy to see a lot of temples and Buddhas, which you will, it is a great time because, although visitor numbers are increasing rapidly, the country has yet to have the full influx of tourists that will come in due course, so it is still a place that has a certain amount of innocence in its tourism, especially away from the main hubs. It will certainly change over the coming years, and I am glad to have seen it before that happens..

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Farewell to Myanmar / Burma

Our last full day in Myanmar was a long driving day to Dawei, so that we would be in a good place to make the push to the border.

We stopped off at the Thanbyuzayat Allied War Memorial, which again was a beautifully kept place of remembrance, with some graves relating to people who died in the construction of the death railway. More on that when we get to Thailand though.

Dawei itself is a little inland from Myanmar's south westerly coastline, but for those who felt a couple of hours at the beach was worth a very early morning, the truck made a trip out before we set off for the border. Those that went enjoyed it, but we opted for a nice lay in instead.

We also managed to pick up a few extra passengers today. The man who runs the local tourist bureau had a few apprentices and they joined us to make the crossing into Thailand.

I don't know how much they learned officially, but we did introduce them to some new music including Build Me Up Buttercup by the Foundations and Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, which they got most excited about, so that was good.

We in turn, were quite excited when someone spotted an elephant down in the hills below us. Admittedly it was a working elephant, with a boy on its back, but still, it was interesting to see.

We were slightly less enthusiastic about being stopped at two armed checkpoints.

We were in the area of Myanmar that is held by the Karen Rebels, and there is known to be an issue in the area because of the Karen resistance to the development of the road that we were travelling down to facilitate the creation of a transportation and manufacturing hub near to Dawei.

The first stop was the Myanmar police, checking where we were going and why. There seemed to be some reluctance to let us through, as we were there for quite a while, but in the end with Myo, our government escort, and the tourism guy all fighting our case, we were allowed through.

The second stop was the Karen Rebels. They seemed more easily satisfied, and we were soon waved on our way with lots of smiles. I guess we didn't look like we were planning on doing any road construction.

We reached the border, which while not as smooth a process as it could have been, was not too much of a delay, and we were soon saying our goodbyes to Myo, our escorts, and our extra passengers and crossing in to Thailand. It seemed slightly strange being just us again, and somehow slightly naughty, as if we had given our watchers the slip!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hpa An - Caves and a mushroom rock temple

Our next overnight destination was Mawlamyine. Myo sang us some Burmese songs during the drive, and we stayed at a nice waterside hotel and watched a lovely sunset drinking cheap rum and coke. We didn't visit the temples here, but the Kyaik Than Lan Paya is where Rudyard Kipling is thought to have written Road to Mandalay.

For me though, today was about the places we visited on the way, around the Hpa An area, which were two of my favourite places in Myanmar, and I would definitely recommend both to future visitors.

Our first stop was at the Kawgun caves. The monkeys running around may demand your food, but your attention should certainly be on the caves themselves - and perhaps on avoiding treading on the monkey poo with your bare feet!

There isn't a lot to say about the caves really, so I am just going to post a few photos. In case you can't see them properly, all of those little red figures in rows on the walls are little individual Buddha images.

My photos don't do the place justice at all, but I hope you get an idea at least of how beautiful the decorations in these caves were.

Our second stop was the Kyauk Kalap monastery where, if you are so inclined, you can partake of a free vegetarian meal. But we weren't there for the meal, we were there to see the mushroom rock temple. Although I did finally get around to trying the freshly pressed sugar cane juice, which was tasty and very refreshing in the heat.

If you do visit here, and do go up to the temple, you might want to allow yourself a little bit longer than you expect to need. We found that here, more than anywhere see we visited, people were fascinated by us and I and a couple of the other women were constantly being stopped by people to have our photos taken with them.

Some would ask first, other times I would just find that someone was suddenly holding my arm and posing with me. Sometimes it would be just one person, other times there would be a whole group and they would each take a turn for their photo opportunity. It was always friendly, but it did mean that it took a lot longer to get around.

OK, the temple on the rock is nothing special in itself, but the overall sight was pretty impressive. Personally, I would much rather see this than the big gold painted rock at Kyaiktiyo.

Oh, and I finally got around to getting a bag of the pressed sugar cane juice.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Our next stop was Kyaiktiyo, to see the famous golden rock. This balanced rock is supposedly held in place by a single strand of Buddha's hair, and is one of the most sacred places in Myanmar.

The hotel we were staying at gave us a lift to the starting point for our journey; we travelled in real style this time - in the back of a truck. When it arrived, I did wonder quite how I and some of my companions were going to manage to climb up into it, but I was relieved to see that they had a handy set of steps for us. So we clambered in and made ourselves as comfortable as we could for the short trip.

The journey up the mountain to the rock is an adventure in itself, as you are once again in the back of a truck, although this time there is the added luxury of benches to sit on. They do pack you in though, and the truck doesn't leave until it's full, and with the occupancy numbers based on the somewhat smaller build of your average Burmese person, it is rather a tight squeeze for us westerners, especially those of us with big bums! We countered this by paying for a couple of extra seats, so we could have one less person in our rows. You can also opt to pay more for the added comfort of sitting in the cab at the front, but that is still quite cramped and not so much fun.

The trucks wind their way up the mountainside at a fast pace, so you are in for a bumpy and twisty journey that I enjoyed, but not everyone does. The trucks don't go quite all the way to the top, but they do go further than they used to, so by taking it to the second stop, you can avoid most of the walk. And if you really can't be bothered to walk the last bit yourself, there is always the option of paying to be carried up in a chair.

Having made it to the top, our first stop was for lunch. As you might expect, this place attracts thousands of visitors, so they is no shortage of shopping and eating opportunities. As we made our way down a large flight of steps - past the shops of course - to the wide street with all of the restaurants in, we could already see and hear the women calling to attract us to their place to eat. It was a huge cacophony of calls, accompanied by the rapid beckoning motion of the hands. Strangely, as soon as we passed a restaurant, the woman for that place would stop, obviously not having any expectation of being able to draw us back, so as we progressed down the street, the sound gradually dwindled.

After lunch, we went to take a closer look at this big rock. It is quite big, with the rock itself being twenty metres high, with a seven metre temple on top. All covered in gold of course, which you can add to if you buy a bit of gold leaf - and are male!

I know this is a sacred and famous place, but personally I just wasn't that impressed. It felt very commercial and perhaps it has lost something of its prestige as a pilgrimage site now that you can take a truck up the mountain, rather than having to make the journey on foot. I always think of a pilgrimage as having to be hard work. Mind you, given that I wasn't impressed after getting the truck up here, I'm sure I would be even less happy if I'd walked up.

Honestly, whilst I know this place will be a must see for many visitors to Myanmar, I felt that I could happily have given it a miss. To me there are many more interesting and unusual temples and sites to see, not least of which would be two that are coming up in the next posting.rd