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.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Yangon at a standstill

As we drove into Yangon, I suddenly saw why the government might have wanted to move to a new city. The traffic here is truly terrible. There is nothing wrong with the roads themselves, they are in pretty good shape, but the volume of cars means that nothing goes anywhere. And this isn't due to an accident or any ad hoc problem, it is just the norm.

One thing that we quickly noticed was the lack of any two wheeled modes of transport. Unlike everywhere else, where mopeds and small motorbikes are the norm, with a good number of regular bikes still thrown in, none of those are to be found here. We did see the occasional bicycle sneak around, but that was it. Apparently, a government official had his car hit by a bike of some form, so promptly banned all two wheel vehicles. I can't vouch for the truth of that, but that is the story.

But there is no shortage of cars and they all seem to be in front of you and going the same way! It took us forever to get around the city, which made the further afield sites a little frustrating to get to.

Anyway, we did finally reach our hotel, and had a bit of time to relax before a few of us headed out to see if we could pick up a bit of street food. We would have been fine if we wanted just anything, but we had agreed to go for some dhosa that had been spotted earlierin the day, so the search was on for them.

Unfortunately, all the dhosa vendors seemed to have packed up early for the night. On the brink of disappointment, someone directed us towards a little restaurant, and sure enough, there were dhosa there. It was my first taste of them, and I was a bit dubious as spicy floors and I don't mix well, but as they are basically a pancake with stuff to dip them in, I just stuck to the one dip I liked and all was fine.

Yangon is noticeably different from the rest of Myanmar, not only because of the traffic. Whereas Mandalay and some other big towns do have some big 'western style' buildings, much of it is still very low level and in parts quite ramshackle. Yangon has a much higher proportion of taller and larger buildings, albeit that many are now quite old and a bit run down.

Also the people dress differently. In most of Myanmar, the majority of women and many men still wear the traditional longhi. Here, some still do, but the majority are in western style clothing. Quite a lot of the women are still using the thanaka though.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The ghost town of Nay Pyi Taw

Ask most people what the capital of Myanmar is, and they will probably say Yangon, or maybe its old name of Rangoon. That would have been true up until 2005, but since then there is a new capital, and its name is Nay Pyi Taw.

Not only is this the new capital, it is a brand new city. For reasons best known to themselves, the government decided to spend a large chunk of the country's money, not on schools, health or helpful things like that, but on building a completely new capital city.

It has a huge, beautifully landscaped swathe of land, with fancy buildings for all of the various ministries, and an enormous government building. Not that you can get anywhere close to the main building with all of its security; it has its own extensive grounds and there are well guarded roadblocks closing off the roads around it.

And talking of the roads. In this country where even the main roads between cities are terrible, Nay Pyi Taw has been given eight lane superhighways, with perfectly smooth surfaces. And there is absolutely no traffic! Why no traffic? Because there's no one here.

The foreign embassies have steadfastly refused to move from Yangon, and so has pretty much īanyone else who has the choice. They built homes for the government officers, but apparently even most of them only live here during the week and go back to Yangon at the weekends. There are people on the outskirts of town, who used to live in the villages that were absorbed when the city was built, but other than that, few people actually live here, and hardly anyone visits except for business reasons.

Foreigners like us have to stay in one of the big business hotels that have been built along one road. They are decent enough hotels, but they are definitely intended for business and conference use, rather than tourists. Not surprisingly really, as there is not really anything much here to see.

They have put in a water park, presumably to give the businessmen something to do in the evening, but it is fairly unimpressive.

The main sight here is Uppatasanti Paya, a somewhat unimaginative copy of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Why they would choose to make a poor imitation of an already popular place, rather than build something new and unique, I really don't understand.

And while we are on the subject of things I find strange, there is a real obsession with neon lighting here. Not just this temple, all over Myanmar, Buddha images are dressed up like Christmas trees in twinkling neon lights.

They do have elephants here though. And not just any elephants, but white elephants. I say white, but like white people, they are really a kind of pinky-beige colour. We use the phrase 'white elephant' to mean something useless and frivolous, and that comes from the way these creatures are treated in much of South East Asia.

But whereas we use the phrase in a negative way, a white elephant is in fact a revered animal, because Buddha's mother dreamed of one when she became pregnant with him. So they are costly, frivolous and fairly useless, because they have to be looked after without being put to work, but they are also a cherished symbol of status.

As to Nay Pyi Taw itself, it was interesting to come here to see this new ghost of a city, and how it contrasts with everything else we have seen in Myanmar, but to be honest, unless you have time to kill, I wouldn't bother.

On a separate note, today we said goodbye to our government friend Mr T, as he was heading home. We were sad to see him go, as he always had such a cheerful smile!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Inle Lake by boat - part 2

After tearing ourselves away from the Burmese cats, we rejoined the others for a lunch stop, before getting back into those pesky boats. My anxiety wasn't helped by the fact that we seemed to break down again. Thankfully, after drafting in circles in the middle of the water highway for a while, we got going again.

After a morning of crafts and cats, by now of course, it had to be time for a temple, and we were soon at the precarious jetty of the Phaung Daw Oo Paya, a place famous for its five gold Buddhas.

Well I say Buddhas, but we will just have to take their word for that, as there has been so much gold leaf offering, that now they just look like golden blobs, or maybe a little pile of Ferrero Rocher. We asked Myo whether, as it seemed to us, it was disrespectful to effectively destroy a Buddha image in this way, but he assured us that because gold is a valuable offering, it is fine.

During the annual pagoda festival, four of these twelfth century Buddhas make an eighteen day boat tour around the lake's villages. They are taken out in a replica royal barge, which is decorated with a craving of the head of the Karaweik, a mythical bird.

They used to take all five out, but in the 1960s, the barge capsized, dropping all of the Buddhas into the lake. Only four were rescued, but when they back to the pagoda, the fifth one was miraculously already back on its shrine. They took this as a sign that this Buddha image does not wish to leave the pagoda, so now only the other four make the rounds.

Back onto the boats - which thankfully had moved to the slightly better landing area - and on to a place making mulberry paper and the rather beautiful paper umbrellas.

They also host a couple of visiting Paduang women, the ladies that wear the brass rings around their elongated necks. Now this was something of a dilemma for us, as we were both fascinated by this, and wanted to take photographs, but we also find the idea of women having to damage their bodies this way quite wrong, especially when we had heard that these days it is often done just to attract tourists.

So we were quite pleased that the two ladies were happy to discuss their neck rings and how they feel about them. The older lady has been wearing her 24 rings, the maximum number, for many years, and whilst she could remove them, her neck would not support her head, so it would be unwise. We picked up a set of rings and they are very heavy.

The younger girl only wears 17 rings, and she assured us that she did it through her own choice, and that with the lower number, she could safely remove them if she no longer wished to wear them. She did say that most girls now choose not to wear the rings, and they are not pressured into doing so. I hope that this is true, and have no reason to think she was not being honest.

As to why the Paduang women started wearing them, there is consensus that it was to protect them from a danger, but we have heard two different versions of what that danger was. One account is that the danger came from hungry tigers that would attack villagers, and the rings protected the areas they would bite at; the other is that it was to make the women unattractive to neighbouring tribesmen, who otherwise might kidnap them.

Back in the boats, we wound our way through the floating gardens, where the locals grow their fruit and vegetables on islands or on a sort of gazebo on stilts that they grow things over.

Our final stop of the day was at the Nga Hpe Kyaung, or the Jumping Cat Monastery, so called because the monks taught the cats to jump up through little hoops.

Sadly, though there are still cats there, they no longer jump. In another case of differing explanations, one reason is that there were complaints that Buddhists shouldn't make cats do things like that, whilst another is that the huge number of visitors were putting too much pressure for more frequent performances. The jumping cat photo is therefore borrowed from the Lonely Planet book.

So with our final stop of the day complete, it was back into the boats for the forty minute trip back. After so many ins and outs successfully completed, to my surprise, I actually found myself starting to relax a bit. After all, as one of our group had confidently said to me, "Don't worry, nothing bad will happen."

Famous last words there as it turned out. We were the last boat to arrive back at the jetty, and when we got ashore, we were surprised to see that one of our group was soaking wet from head to toe. It turns out that whilst she was trying to get out of the boat, it drifted away from the edge and she fell into the water. So, so much for me feeling better about these boats - back to hating them it is!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Inle Lake by boat - part 1

Despite what it may seem like from our last post, we did actually do something other than just eat and drink at Inle. Predictably, we took a tour around the lake in a boat, which is pretty much the only way you can travel here.

This wasn't great for me, as, whilst they did feel a bit more stable than the ones at Hsipaw, they were the long narrow kind that I feel unsafe in. It didn't help that they offered us all life jackets; of course none of us took them because we know that they should be safe really, and it was a hot day.

In fact the couple of times I have been in the water with a life jacket, I hated it because I felt even more out of control than without one, so for me, I would only want to wear one where I really might drown otherwise. That didn't seem likely here.

Of course that didn't stop me feel in anxious in the boat, especially when we were getting in and out. It was made worse because we had actual chairs to sit in and while I know that they actually weren't any higher than the benches before, they felt less safe.

But anyway, off we went, and our first pause was at the mouth of the lake itself to see the guys displaying the famous one legged rowing technique and how they fish with cones. It was interesting to see it close up, but it was a little disappointing to hear that these guys make more money from tourists' tips than the real fishermen do for a day's work. I also find it amusing when I read other blogs and see that some people try to pass off their photos of these guys as the actual working fishermen.

Our first proper stop was at a weaver's workshop. But they weren't just weaving cotton and silk, they are one of the very few places that also make cloth out of lotus. It is a painstaking process, which originally was reserved for making special robes for revered monks. Traditionally the lotus is important, so there is a ritual to the cutting of the stems. Then they remove the thorns, cut and twist the stems and remove the threads from inside. This must be done soon after cutting to avoid decomposition, and wet hands are essential throughout the thread making process.

There are multiple stages of spinning until they end up with a strong thread, which they wash and coat with a gluey substance.

To make a set of monk's robes, requires ten yards of cloth. This means the stems from 220,000 lotus plants have to be prepared into thread, which then takes sixty weaver's ten days to make into cloth. The whole process of making the robes takes about a month.

Lotus fabric was available on sale, mostly with natural dye colours. It was an amazing cloth, a sort of silky linen, soft but hardworking, lightweight, and good for keeping you warm in winter and cool in summer. But, unsurprisingly when you consider the raw materials and work that go into it, it is not cheap, and sadly I didn't feel I could run to a few hundred dollars for a scarf.

After the weavers, we stopped at the blacksmiths and the boatbuilders. Both were interesting, but these stops do feel a bit like tourists are being shuttled around between opportunities to buy stuff.

The next place on the list was a cheroot maker, but at this point a few of us staged a mini revolt and asked if we could go to the Burmese cat sanctuary that we had passed by.

Myo was surprised by this - he obviously hasn't yet had sufficient exposure to the European obsession with animals - but he said if we could get enough interest to fill one of the three boats, then we could go there instead while the others went to see anise cheroots being made. As it turned out, we filled two out of three boats with our alternative option, so off to the cat sanctuary we went.

Burmese have long been one of my favourite breeds of cat, so we had been hoping to see a few whilst in their native country. Sadly though, the breed had been lost entirely, until a woman called Yin Myo Su decided to work with the China Exploration and Research Society to reintroduce them. Thankfully the British had taken some home with them, so they were able to get some pure bred lines from countries like the UK and Australia, and took them to a resort on Inle Lake where they have a specialist team breeding the cats with the eventual aim of seeing them back across their native land.

Apparently they did give one to Aung Sang Suu Kyi, but her dog was too jealous of it, so she had to return it.

The site we visited at Inthar Heritage House is separate from the breeding centre, so it is happy to allow visitors in to make a fuss of their cats. There were 39 cats there when we went and whilst a few ignored us, most were very friendly. I was bending over to stroke one cat, when I suddenly found I had another cat on my back, making itself very comfortable. And when it was time to leave, Nic had great trouble extricating himself from a group that were enjoying chasing his shoelaces.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Inle Lake - a night market and a winery

We arrived at Nyaungshwe, the 'gateway to Inle Lake', in good time for a small group of us to head out to the local night market. It is really more of an evening market, and is quite small, but the quality is good and the prices are very cheap.  We wandered our way along the street, looking at all of the foodstalls, before deciding on the very first one.

The guy here was friendly and helpful, and once we had settled ourselves somewhat gingerly onto the tiny low chairs, we soon tucked into a small feast of tempura vegetables, fried tofu, tea leaf salad, Shan noodle soup (non spicy for us), and a palata, which is basically a kind of pancake - a banana one in this case. All were very tasty.

We went back another time and tried the place at the other end, which some preferred, but we still liked the first one best.

If you aren't sure about street food - though to be honest if it is a popular stall and the food is served hot, then it is one of the best ways to eat - then I can vouch for a somewhat dubiously named place called Beyond Taste. We went there for a group meal, and whilst obviously more expensive than street food, it was still decent value and the food was good. The drinks were cheap too.

We also decided to try out the somewhat unlikely idea of Burmese wine, with a trip to Red Mountain, one of the two local wineries. You can do a quick tour of the process, and then you can sit out in the garden and either try a tasting flight, or just buy by the glass or bottle. It was a great place to sit and watch the sun set. As for the wine, some weren't too great, but we found a couple that were most enjoyable.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hill villages of Kalaw

Whilst we could see the town of Kalaw below us, we didn't stop to visit it, but instead took a walk through a couple of hill villages.

Kalaw is a popular place to start a three day trek to Inle Lake, so what we did was just a quick glimpse, but it did suggest that if you have the time on an independent trip then it might be a nice walk to take.

As we only had the morning before we had to set off again, we were up early and took a little truck taxi most of the way to Myin Kha, the first village. As we walked we could see a number of their crops growing, including ginger and garlic.

As we arrived at the village we saw construction work going on for a new temple - apparently the old one wasn't good enough, so they knocked it down and are building a new one. They were in the process of making their own bricks at this time.

Myo got us invited in to the local school, where the children had their english lesson on the board, but none of them were brave enough to attempt a few words with us. They seemed to be in playtime, as some were outside and they were all engrossed in skipping and other games.

As we left, one of the children was raising the flag in the playground and the children were gathered together, carefully lining themselves up in neat rows. When they started singing a song, Myo remembered it from his own childhood, and joined in.

One of the children was distracted by us being nearby and kept turning around to look at us, only to be told off by one of his schoolmates. We left before we got anyone into trouble.

The walk to the next village was quite pleasant, but even though it was only mid morning, it had already got quite hot, so we were pleased when we got some shade.

The second village was Pain Nae Pin, and here Myo had arranged for us to go into one of the dwellings to have a few refreshments and be introduced to the local clothing.

Helen was given particularly interesting headgear, which we then found was what would  be worn for your wedding, so of course we teased her that Myo had found her a husband from the village.

A few brave souls should decided to walk back to the monastery, while the rest of us have in to the heat and took the truck back. We did take down and clean off all the tents though, so we felt we had earned the beers that we were enjoying when they finally arrived back hot and tired.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Thanakha and jaggery en route to Kalaw

From the moment we crossed the border into Myanmar, we noticed that many of the women had painted circles or stripes of what looked like clay onto their cheeks - or sometimes even a more elaborate leaf pattern. We asked Myo about this and he explained that it is a form of sun block that women use and also put on their children.

It is called thanakha. You buy a small log of wood from the thanakha tree and grind it on a stone slab called a kyauk pyin, with a tiny bit of water, to make a thin paste that you apply to your skin. It is a very old tradition, and it supposed to be excellent as both moisturiser and sunscreen. Women are considered more beautiful for wearing it - indeed Myo is certainly that any future bride of his would wear the thanakha.

Well on our drive from Bagan to Kalaw, we stopped off at a roadside place where we got to try this for ourselves, and soon all of the women in the group had thanakha leaves painted on our cheeks.

That wasn't the only thing we could try here either. They were also tapping the palm trees for their sap, which they do by climbing up the tree, making a small cut and leaving a pot tied under it to collect the sap that drips out. From that sap, they make drinks and sweets.
The sweet is called jaggery, and is very rich tasting and crumbly, and popular across Myanmar with adults, children and we tourists too. It is made by simply boiling the sap. Here, they were making it plain, or mixed with either shredded coconut or jujube date paste.

And then there are the drinks. The first is palm wine, or toddy, which is made by fermenting the sap. It is quite low in alcohol, so when they want something stronger, they can distill the toddy.

The other drink we tried was a mix of jaggery, water and sticky rice, which is fermented for four days - they had a pot bubbling away while we were there and the smell was fairly pungent. They all tasted OK, but I won't be rushing to get any.

They were very hospitable at this stop, as we were all offered tea and green tea leaf salad too.

And we got to feed the ox that was pulling the grinding stone to extract the peanut oil from the peanuts. The ox gets the leftover dried out peanut, which it seems to rather like, so it's a win win situation.

After that it was back on the road to Kalaw, with a quick stop for lunch. As we reached our destination, which is another of these British hill stations, we were stopped by the tourist police, and we all had to get off again to have another group photo taken.

Then it was on to the Thein Taung Paya monastery where we were doing our last night of camping. There was a great view of Kalaw from the monastery, so every so often other visitors would appear and be quite surprised to find us camping there.

One particular pair of male Chinese tourists were especially fascinated by our dinner preparations, and seemed to think it perfectly acceptable to shove their huge cameras right in the faces of Nic and the others in the cook group, without even saying hello. It made me glad that I am more considerate of people when taking my own photos, even if it means I can't always get the picture that I'd like