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.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


We were staying just outside of Old Bagan in the very backpacker friendly area of Nyaung-U, with some great places to eat western style food instead of rice or noodles; we liked both Wetherspoons (not the pub chain) for its burgers and Black Bamboo. Because of that, before we started hitting just a select few of the numerous temples, our first stop of the day was the local market. One of our fellow passengers used to be a professional buyer, so he had fun haggling with the stall holders.

Our next stop was, unsurprisingly, a temple. And rather an impressive one too. The Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda is unusual for me in that it is a gilded temple that I actually thought looked rather good. I liked the floral decorations, which were a bit different to the norm.

I know that we are all keen to get nice photos of people, and that the monks here make a particularly colourful photo, but I always feel a little uncomfortable if taking the photo becomes intrusive or seems to be influencing the person's behaviour. This picture of everyone  photographing the young monk, who as a result spent ages posing for them, is the sort of thing I generally try to avoid.

This temple also had a lot of small stone carved panels around the outside, telling stories from Bhudda's lives. Myo told us a couple, but strangely the one that sticks in the mind was the one about the jackal eating the elephant.

The story goes that the hungry jackal found an elephant carcass, but found it too tough and unpleasant to eat until it got to the anus, which was softer. He chewed his way through the anus, into the elephant's stomach, where he started eating the insides. Figuring the carcass could be both shelter and food, the jackal decided to stay inside, but when the sun came out it dried out the hide, causing the hole he had made to close up, and with him being bigger from having eaten so much, he was trapped inside. Only the morning dew the next day saved him, by softening the hide enough for him to escape. But in doing so he lost all of his hair. The close call made the jackal realise he must never be so greedy again, which is the moral of the story.

Our second stop was a lacquer work place, where we saw them splitting the bamboo whilst holding it between their toes, using that bamboo to make the form of the object,  and then applying the sticky black thayo, or lacquer, by hand. The lacquer is made by mixing sap from the Thit-si tree with ash, and they apply at least seven layers, each time having to let it dry for about a week and sandpapering it to make sure it is perfectly smooth.

Once enough layers are added, the hand engrave the pattern and apply the colour or gold decoration. As ever with these crafts, they may be more expensive to buy than you first expected, but once you see the intricate, skilled and lengthy process required to make an item, you can much better appreciate why.

Our next stop was the U-pali-thein temple, which was didn't look especially promising from the outside, but has some beautiful, if a bit faded, murals inside. Sadly, no photographs were allowed.

Our next temple, Hit-lo-min-lo also had some murals inside but not nearly as impressive, but the outside was good.

I don't know the name of the next set of pagoda that we stopped at, they were around the Min Myaw Yaza area, but they were a very picturesque group of the old stone type that I like so much, with the added benefit of some brightly coloured bougainvilleas to liven up the view.

By this time we had earned some lunch, which we had at The Moon - Be Kind to Animals, an excellent vegetarian restaurant where I had some really good tempura. This one is recommended by lonely planet, which the one across the street, also calling itself Be Kind To Animals, seems to be hoping to cash in on. That one may be good too, but I can vouch for only the first one.

Refreshed, we headed for the Ananda Temple. It is supposed to be a very good site, with well regarded, artworks inside, but I didn't like it much. It looked a bit austere to me.

The That-byin-nyu temple was another that didn't allow inside photos. It is the tallest of the temples here at just over 200 feet.

Our next stop was the pairing of the Gu Byauk Gyi and Mya Zedi temples, two quite different looking temples that had some lovely stone work. However by this time I have to say I was flagging a bit. It is well worth getting around the temples in Bagan, but on a hot day it can get pretty tiring.

This was a good spot for a quick group photo, with Xara having a nice place to park in front of the range of temples.

Our next stop was a bit of a rush as we had a sunset deadline. Dhamma Yan Dyi pagoda is another big one and, as it is apparently not so exciting on the inside, we just took a look around, and left the inside to the horde of Chinese tourists all wearing their bright green tour group hats. That seems to be a common approach for Chinese tour groups, having a hat or t-shirt that they all wear.

This is a strange photo to add I know, but I quite liked all of the footprints in the sand. Shoes and socks have to be taken off to go into the temple or other religious areas, so people are often barefoot.

Our final stop was at the Shwe San Daw pagoda, which we clambered up - so of us not so high as others - to watch the sunset over the spires of the various temples and stupas.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Balloon over Bagan

When I said we had an early morning, I wasn't kidding. We had to be ready in the lobby for a pick-up at 5:45am. But it was all worthwhile, as we had treated ourselves to a hot air balloon ride.

The company that we were with was Balloons Over Bagan, and they collected us in fabulous old buses, which we instantly decided that we wanted one of to kit out for overlanding. Totally impractical of course, but they looked great.

At the launch site, we had teas and biscuits while we watched them get the balloons ready. As sunrise approached, we met our pilot Elly, had our safety briefing, and then piled into the balloon.

There were sixteen people to a basket.  The huge basket had five sections, laid out like an H. The centre section was for Elly and the four gas bottles. The others were for passengers, four in each. Clambering in is a feat in itself, especially trying to avoid kicking anyone, but once you're in, it is fine.

Elly kept the balloon nice and low for us, so we had a great view of the temples.  And there are a lot of temples. Bagan was the royal city from the 10th century up until 1287, when bad diplomacy with the Mongols caused them to flee the city. The various Kings during that period went a bit wild building temples and pagodas.  At the city's prime, it would have had over ten thousand of them.

 These days, lack of upkeep after the city was abandoned and some devastating earthquakes have reduced their number to around a mere two thousand, many of which are the beautiful old red brick variety, so they look stunning. Little wonder then, that between the three companies based here, there were about seventeen balloons up in the air, and they do that every day.

As ever, my commitment to taking photos comes a poor third to actually looking at the view and enjoying the experience, and I still only use my little compact, so the photos here do absolutely no justice to the real thing.

Once we had crossed the city and the temple density had started to dwindle, Elly expertly - and very gently - set us down in an empty plot of land. The crew had us safely moored in no time, so we were quickly out and enjoying our post flight breakfast of champagne, croissants and fresh fruits.  Just as well Nic and I were finally feeling better.

Breakfast over, it was back onto the old buses and back to our hotel, arriving just in time to meet up with the group for a day of sightseeing at ground level.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A boat to Bagan

It was a bumpy drive on the truck this morning, and as I was still feeling pretty delicate - bucket still to hand but thankfully not used - it was almost a relief to be to told that we were getting on a boat again. And as regular readers will know, I'm not generally too happy about the boats in Myanmar.

As it turned out, the boats were actually OK this time, as they were the bigger ferry boat style rather than the narrow ones. At our boarding point in Pakokku they clearly had experience of western tour groups, indeed they were unloading a small coachload and their baggage onto boats while we were there, but we were a different matter with our truck, and we soon had our usual crowd of watchers.

The boat trip took us along the Ayeyarwaddy River and into Bagan. There were a few other river users out fishing etc, but in the main, the journey was not especially interesting until we had Bagan and it's temples in sight.

So for some of the trip, our local guide Myo kept us amused by showing us how to wear the longhi, and some other things it can be used for. The longhi is the skirt like piece of clothing worn by most people in Myanmar. Men and women wear different colours and patterns, and the fabrics and designs vary by region and tribal background.

For the ladies, it is worn in a simple wrap around style, similar to a sarong, so can just be a straightforward length of fabric, but more often it is the same format as the men have, which is sewn up at the side to create a tube of fabric about twice the width of a normal skirt. The men wear theirs differently by gathering the loose fabric at the front and knotting it there, creating a bunched effect.

But it was the other uses that we found more amusing. Some were practical, such as the rolling it up and using it as the base for carrying things on your head, for making a hammock to swing your baby in, or even a baby carrier.

We of course, preferred the ones where he would use it as a cape and pretend to be superman, use it as a ninja outfit, or even to create the ears and trunk of an elephant.

As we got close to Bagan, the scenery finally captured our attention as we saw the first views of just some of the beautiful stone pagodas that have made Bagan such a popular destination.

Once we made it to our hotel, we a quiet evening to help us get over our remaining sickness, and an early night as Nic and I had an early morning ahead.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Big Buddhas en route to Monywa

From Mandalay, we set off for Monywa. Unfortunately, neither of us was feeling great this morning, with Nic especially worse for wear; initially, we put this down to the amount of rum we had consumed the previous evening, but as we later realised, alcohol was not the culprit. It turned out that just about everyone on the truck felt dodgy to some degree either today or over the next few days.

Our first stop was a silver smiths, that we had intended to visit on our first day, but ran out of time. We watched them carefully drawing on the designs, beating out the reliefs and engraving the items in very intricate detail. The work really is painstaking, and the finished products are excellent quality.

 Because he wasn't well, Nic had made the mistake of letting me go in alone, so when we got to looking in the shop, I spent some money. I was relatively well behaved though, I just picked up a couple of charms for my bracelet - a dragon to represent China and unsurprisingly, a Buddha for Myanmar.

A short way on we stopped in Sagaing, which is where Myo did his childhood stint in the monastery, to see the Kaunghmudaw Paya, a pagoda that is some 150 feet tall and shaped like a huge breast.  It was built in 1636, and legend has it that the king was struggling to decide what style of pagoda to build, so his wife took out her breast and said it should look like that. Experts apparently have a rather more mundane opinion that it may in fact be based on a similar shaped stupa in Sri Lanka, called the Suvarnamali Mahaceti.

We drove until lunch time, where I realised I was in a bad way when I couldn't even manage a coke, let alone any food, so once back in the truck I went to sleep. When I awoke, it was with an immediate and very urgent need to be sick. There was no time to move, and I daren't open my mouth, therefore I was most pleased that Nic quickly understood my frantic gestures and got the window open for me, so that I could stick my head out and do some quite impressive projectile vomiting out onto the road.  As Nic said, it was just as well that there wasn't someone alongside on a bike or moped, as they would have been pretty surprised and doubtless quite angry!

I think Helen (and our fellow passengers for that matter) was quite relieved that I had managed not to get any in the truck, but she still handed me a bucket, just in case. Thankfully the rest of the journey passed without any further incident.

Sadly neither Nic nor I felt up to getting off to see the next batch of Buddhas at Bodhi Tataung, but he did take a few photos from the truck. It was a shame, as this was quite an impressive set of sights.

The first was a huge area filled with neatly planted bayan trees, each with a small seated Buddha image underneath it. Apparently the aim is to have a thousand, and they are close to that number now.

The other two Buddhas are enormous. The reclining one is 312 feet long, and the standing Buddha is 424 feet tall, which is the world's biggest. On the inside of the standing one, the different floors have images representing the various levels of the Buddhist heavens and hells.

Further on, and Nic had recovered sufficiently to venture into the caves at Hpo Win Daung. Whilst everyone else was away, it was quite amusing to see the local men all looking around the truck, checking out the panels and tyres.  The local monkeys had a quick look too.

Our overnight today was at a resort style hotel in Monywa. It had a nice bar and pool, and spa facilities, so had we been feeling OK, we might have made use of them, but as it was, we just collapsed into the room, thankful for a comfortable bed, air conditioning, and an en suite bathroom!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mandalay - defiant Moustaches

Our final post on our packed two days in Mandalay is something a little different.  If you read the post about the political situation here, or indeed if you have seen the recent news reports about violent clashes between police and students, you will know that Myanmar is still not really a place where you can get away with being critical of the government. Unless you are one of the Moustache Brothers.

In recent years the Moustache Brothers have been getting away with doing a nightly show that accuses the government of corruption and cronyism. How? Well it is a hard won privilege.

The Moustache Brothers, actually two brothers, Par Par Lay and Lu Maw, and their cousin Lu Zaw, were a successful theatrical and comedy act.  In 1996, they did a show at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, and included a relatively innocuous joke about corrupt government officers. She laughed. The government, however, were not amused and Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were sentenced to seven years in prison.

Par Pay Lay actually gets a mention in the film About A Boy, when the Hugh Grant character volunteers at a human rights charity and the other volunteer mentions that in Burma you can get seven years in prison just for telling a joke.

 They were released a year early in 2002 after an Amnesty International campaign, with a strict proviso that they could only perform for foreigners in English.  As they were also kept under house arrest, these performances have to be in the garage of their home. With very minimal English, and the help of word boards to make their points, they carried on performing.

When Par Par Lay was imprisoned again in 2007, his brother carried on the shows. He and his cousin are now doing a two man show as Lay died in 2013, which Maw attributes to leadpoisoning from his time in prison.

So some of us went along to see the show, which really is just in the garage of his house.  The show isn't great. There is a bit of slapstick humour, a few jibes about the government, and some traditional Burmese dancing for which he ropes in the rest of his family. But it was an interesting experience, and I guess the quality of the show isn't really the point.

During the show, Lu Maw suggested that the KGB (which is how he refers to the government security people) were watching us and would come and arrest us all. He couldn't have known that as a group we have our own government escorts and occasional police guards too; who knows whether we were in fact being followed that evening. We don't think we were ever followed by the way - it just amused us to think that it could have been the case.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mandalay - a walk through the back streets

On our way back from Inwa, we decided to get off the truck downtown and walk back to the hotel, to get a bit more of a feel for the city. Being on the truck is great, but with quick turnarounds and a packed itinerary, you can end up isolating yourself away from the general life of the place. So after grabbing some lunch, and passing by one side of the huge old fortress that used to house the palace, we decided to just wander our way back through some of the non touristy bits.

What we rather liked about Mandalay is that it seems to be an unpretentious city that is just getting on with its own business. Yes, we had earlier driven past some newer shopping areas, but most of the city was still low level buildings where people live simply, often over the top of their workplace if they have a business.

As was usual here, we noticed that it was the men who had time to spare sitting around in tea shops, whereas all of the women we saw were constantly busy.

 The areas we passed through were not exciting or photogenic, but they showed us a slice of life.  We had been wondering whether any recycling happened here, and found our answer when we chanced upon a road that was dedicated to the sorting and recycling of rubbish.  Each place was collecting together a particular product - plastic bottles, cardboard, tins, scrap metal, glass, old tyres - each each type of thing was being collected together and packaged up.

As we passed through, we got some surprised looks - obviously this is not usually where the tourists end up, even the dogs looked confused. We said a few mingalabars (hellos) as we went and most people smiled and said hello back. Some of the children ran alongside us practising their English, albeit just hello and goodbye.

We also found ourselves in a tiny alleyway that was just lots of small homes crammed in. The women here found it most amusing to see western tourists in their little lane.  At one point the street became so narrow that we thought we might have reached a deadend, but the ladies waved us, on through.

When we emerged onto a road again, a man helpfully pointed us down the street we should take to get back to the hotel. I'm not sure whether there is only the one hotel nearby, or whether he was one of the crowd that watched our arrival in the truck and he actually remembered us; neither would surprise me.

So we arrived back safely at our hotel, having enjoyed our wander through the streets, and looking forward to sampling some of the £1.50 bottle of local dark rum that we had picked up along the way.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mandalay - Inwa

Our second day in Mandalay started with a trip out to Inwa, known as Ava during the  British time, which was the royal capital on various occasions between the 14th and 19th centuries. It was finally abandoned in 1839 after a number of devastating earthquakes, so much of what is left is now in ruins, but it is an interesting change from the hustle of Mandalay.
The drive out to Inwa took us along the bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River (or Irrawaddy River), where the people were busy on their boats, or on the side of the roads selling great piles of watermelons.

Inwa sits at the meeting point between two rivers, the Ayeyarwaddy and the Myitnge, so was mostly surrounded by water. The King who first established it as his capital took this a step further and had a canal dug between the rivers on the only land side, so that it sat as an island, securely isolated.

So to reach the old city, we had to leave Xara behind and get in a small ferry boat, which was simple enough in itself, but did involve running the gauntlet of ladies selling hats, jewellery and other trinkets.

They knew their sales patter in multiple languages, and were most determined. If you still said no after a few attempts, their tack changed to "maybe later?", with a request to "remember me" and her repeated promise of "I'll remember you".  At least I think it was a promise and not a threat; after all we were her "number one tourist", her "favourite customer" and her "best foreigner", and we are absolutely certain that she didn't say that to anybody else!

Having escaped across the water, and been beseeched to remember a new batch of sellers on the other side, this time mostly men selling gongs, pictures and ornaments, we now got into the main form of transport for visitors, the horse and cart. Unlike in Pyin Oo Lwin, these ponies were big enough for their two person carts and looked well treated and cared for, so we were happy to use them here.

Not that leaving did anything to stop one determined seller, who hopped onto her bike and followed one of the carts quite some way before finally giving in.

Our first stop at the Daw Gyan pagodas was, for me at least, the nicest. It was just a few old brick stupas, now in ruins, but I thought they were quite beautiful.

Back in the carts, we took a very tranquil trot through some lovely rural scenery to our next destination, which was the rather lovely Bagaya teak monastery. With 267 teak pillars, the largest of which is 9 foot wide and 60 foot tall, this is an impressive structure. It used to function as a monastic college for young royalist.

 After a slightly more bumpy ride over rutted tracks through the banana plantations, we reached the only remaining part of the old palace, the Nanmyin watchtower, which one leans somewhat precariously, earning it the nickname of the leaning tower of Inwa.

Our final stop was the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery was built in1818 by King Bagyidaw's chief queen Nanmadaw Me Nu. Once Bagyidaw himself became reclusive, she and her brother were effectively the leaders of the Burmese empire and it was they that took their country into the first war with the British.

The Burmese had, in the early 1800s, invaded parts of India, in particular Assam, which brought them into border conflicts with the British. The British supported rebellious uprisings in the annexed areas, and eventually the skirmishes led to the First Anglo Burmese war in 1824-6.  A decisive British victory resulted in a huge financial penalty to the Burmese, which significantly weakened the country.

Bagyidaw's brother deposed him, executing the warmongering wife and her brother, but the conflict did not die with them and two further wars with the British led to their eventual takeover of Burma and the end of the Burmese monarchy.