Thursday, 23 February 2017

On the road to Mandalay

I'm not really sure why but Myanmar has always held a fascination for me. I remember following the political tensions of the country over the years and reading at length about the many years of house arrest imposed upon Aung San Suu Kyi, now a leader of the country after becoming 'state counsellor' in 2016. Apparently she was not permitted to become president following a landslide victory for her party in the 2015 general election as her husband and children are British Nationals. I remember the flurry of excitement at the opening of the land borders to foreign visitors and read many accounts of travellers experiences there subsequently.

Dominating the news while we were in Myanmar were the ongoing clashes between the country's Buddhist monk population and the Rohingya muslims in northern Rakhine. Reports of the Rohingya people being raped and murdered and run out of the country by the military cast a dark shadow over the things we saw, almost as though what we were being allowed to see were just the sanitised parts. There is still a lot of debate as to whether tourism activities in the country should be encouraged, especially in light of these current attrocities. We were mindful of how and where we spent our money, staying at locally owned guesthouses and eating at street food stands for the most part, but still that doubt is there. 

Although tourism is now well established in Myanmar, in some places sadly to the country's detriment, it still has an air of mystery about it and large swathes of it remain mostly off of the well trodden backpacker path. Ours was to be a short visit as we were keen to get back to Bangkok in time for a street art festival we believed was taking place in two weeks time. Unfortunately it turned out that we had the wrong year and it had actually happened in 2016, but by this time our flights were booked and it seemed silly to waste money changing them. This would serve to be a taster trip, somewhere to return to later if we found that we needed longer.

Landing in Yangon it was immediately obvious that Myanmar was going to be a whole new experience. We had previously booked the cheapest room we could find at the extortionate rate of almost $25 a night and upon arrival, after possibly the slowest taxi ride in the history of the world, we arrived at what appeared to be a nice little guesthouse, admittedly about six floors up, with two smiling ladies at the desk eager to welcome us. Happy to be met with such a warm greeting you can imagine our disappointment when it turned out that this was not the place we had booked at all, our guesthouse had the word 'Thar' on the end of its name and was several streets away. Frustrated, we trudged the final few blocks and finally located our already-paid-for accommodation by climbing some stairs that led through a plumbers merchants before being met by an equally friendly gentleman who provided us with a cold drink whilst he checked us in. This guesthouse was less inviting (not surprising given that it was half the price of the first place we had tried to check into) and consisted of a room barely the size of the bed, complete with several hairs that belonged to neither of us, and a shared bathroom that also doubled as a washing up space for the family running the place. It was far from the worst place we've ever stayed but it was an outside contender.

Yangon is a dirty, smelly, lively city. Street food stands adorn every corner and there is a constant bustle going on, be it shoppers during the daytime or families and friends meeting for dinner. Rats are never far away and run freely up and down the sidewalks, not in the least bit bothered by their human neighbours. Nobody seems too bothered by them either. To the uninitiated you'd also be forgiven for thinking there was a serious violent crime problem in the city by the large splashes of blood across the ground ever few metres. We were relieved to find out later that these were actually betel spit stains from locals chewing betel nuts and then literally hacking up their guts across the road. I never did get used to the shock of seeing a local smile, flashing their bright red stained teeth and gums as if they had just finished consuming their last victim.

Yangon has a traffic problem. If you thought the jams were bad in Bangkok, they have nothing on the queues here. Apparently taxis were cheap enough, they just took four times longer to get to wherever we wanted to go than walking, so this is what we did. One obvious and very striking omission in Yangon was motorcycles. They are banned from the city completely, reputedly by a government fearful that they might allow an attack and a quick getaway. If they did allow bikes then the traffic problems would more than likely be solved, but as it stands (quite literally) four wheels good, two wheels bad and consequently no-one really gets anywhere. To confuse things even more there are a combination of both left and right hand drive vehicles there, all driving on the right hand side of the road. It really is absolute chaos. To get to and from the airport from downtown taxis are forced to avoid the purpose built bypass and scoot through the narrow dusty side streets, dodging market stalls and children, to have any chance of reaching their destination in a viable time. It's craziness. 

We decided to stay a couple of nights in Yangon to soak up the atmosphere and to try and suss things out. We had no plan at all as to where we wanted to go or what we wanted to see. We had had a vague discussion about the feasibility of renting some bikes for the duration of our time there, but this didn't come together. Partly because we struggled to connect with a guy who rents bikes with whom we'd been talking, but mostly because we weren't really sure where exactly we'd go if we did have them. Myanmar may be open to tourists, but it is still very restricted for ones who want to go off the beaten track unaccompanied. Some research and talking to people suggested that much of the north was off limits, as well as other random areas as and when the military decided on a whim. In addition the popular tourist locations of Bagan and Inle Lake did not permit tourists on motorbikes so we decided that given our limited time in the country we'd give bike rental a miss on this occasion. Luckily trains are cheap and this became our main method of transport in Myanmar.

As I mentioned above, prices in Myanmar are a little higher than elsewhere in SE Asia and a bit of planning is required to keep costs down, something that doesn't come naturally as we tend to travel on a wing and prayer, deciding what to do next by the day, sometimes even by the hour. During our eight months in Central America last year we only booked a hotel room in advance on one occasion, but this doesn't seem to work here. We've been using to search for the cheapest accommodation, initially to find out which is the budget area of town before we arrive. In the past we've found that showing up at those hotels or guesthouses as a walk-in secures us a price a few dollars less than the online rate as obviously the business saves themselves the fees that the booking site would deduct. Not here though. So many times we've found ourselves having a frustrating conversation at a reception desk debating why we'd want to pay a few dollars more than the online booking price when we can just book it directly and save that money. That first guesthouse in Yangon? Upon asking to stay an additional night the owner was more than happy for us to...before advising us that the standard rate was ten dollars more than we'd paid the first night, but he'd do us a special deal and make it only $8 more! When I thanked him and said that was fine, I'd just book it on agoda again and save myself those $8 he fixed a smile and relented. Time and time again we've faced this, so now when we find something affordable we just book it. We've taken the time when we've arrived in a city to ask around and find out if there are even cheaper rooms available, but there rarely are, quite the opposite. The prices we've seen requested for absolute hovels that are barely habitable at all are quite remarkable.

Keen to try and get our bearings and a sense of the area around the city, we spent our first morning riding a loop on the circle train, a three hour long commuter route that literally circles through the suburbs before returning to its starting point. It was an interesting ride for about the first 20 minutes, but really nothing very exciting to anyone who has ever spent any time in a third world country. The most shocking thing I think was seeing the levels of litter, huge mountains alongside  the track. At every station a multitude of vendors would board the train hawking their wares, mostly food items wrapped in plastic packaging or meat and rice in polystyrene boxes. We watched in horror as each person finished their meal, lifted the window shutter up and threw their litter out. As we moved further away from the city and into suburban farmland we watched people waist deep in murky rivers and fields tending their crops surrounded by heaps of mostly plastic waste. Sadly we would find this scene repeated everywhere we went and it was a sight I just couldn't get used to no matter how many times I saw it.

Food in Myanmar, despite at first appearing wide ranging and exotic, we soon came to realise was mostly deep fried or seafood of questionable origin. We ate mostly at the waterside night market in Yangon - skinny skewers of meat, fried rice, whole fish and various curries. Good, but not exceptional for the most part. What Myanmar lacked in food however, it made up for in culture. A predominantly Buddhist country, monks are revered. They're everywhere, dressed in their long robes in shades from ochre to burnt orange. Early in the day they walk around town with their bare feet and alms bowls collecting food donations. We learned that a man can become a monk for as little as a day, but most remain in the monastery for around three months, some for the rest of their lives. Poor families in particular send their children to the monastery as novices because they are guaranteed food and an education, something they might not otherwise receive. In times of trouble people often enrol their children as no-one will touch a monk if a village is raided and villagers are taken. 

Monks follow a strict set of 227 rules, including having no physical contact with a woman, not handling money and not eating after 12pm each day. It therefore surprised us to see the latter two of these rules broken on numerous occasions. Asking questions about why this was permitted drew a blank, although there were suggestions made that these people were not really monks but were playing a role to line their pockets. Nuns, dressed in pale pink, also with their shaved heads are not held quite the same level of regard, but they too are a common sight, collecting their morning alms and chanting prayers in return. 

Myanmar is a country rich in culture. Local ladies beam their smiles at us as they pass us in the street, their faces painted with thanaka paste made from the bark of the thanaka tree. Reportedly a product used to reduce oil in the skin, with sunscreen and other medical benefits, it is worn by as many as 75% of women and some men too, more so in rural areas. Almost all men wear a 'longyi' a large piece of material worn a bit like a long skirt, knotted at the waist to secure it. Tradition here is strong and still passed down through generations.

Yangon isn't a pretty town, it's not even that likeable in many ways, but it is home to the Shwedagon Pagoda and this alone makes it worth a visit. Completed in c.6th century, the spire of the largest pagoda can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, an intimidating golden spire rising 368ft into the air surrounded by a series of smaller pagodas and temples. The pagoda is built of brick at its base but covered in gold plates made from gold donated by monarchs and ordinary people from all over the country. The top of the spire is encrusted with almost 8,000 diamonds and rubies. We visited late one afternoon (after walking there from the city centre far quicker than a taxi could have carried us) and that gave us the opportunity to see it both during that wonderful golden hour as well as after dark when the pagodas are beautifully lit with a warm golden glow. The lady on the gate wasn't happy with Evan having his knees on show so with his newly purchased longyi we wandered between the temples for a good couple of hours, watching devotees entranced in prayer and ceremonies involving birth days and candles. It really was a stunningly beautiful place.

After some discussion we decided that Mandalay was the next logical place to head for, being right in the centre of the country. At this point we were still talking about the possibility of renting bikes and this seemed like a place we might be able to arrange that so we jumped on a train that took us to Mandalay. If only it were that simple. Trains in Myanmar are old, rickety and take forever to get anywhere. They run on old British track that still makes that wonderful, rhythmic 'clickety-clack' sound as the wheels roll over the joins in the rails. We chose sleeper seats, that in most cases permanently recline due to broken mechanisms, in the first class cabin for the princely sum of $6.50 each. For the next 18 hours we fought to get comfortable as the train wended its way slowly northwards to Mandalay, stopping frequently at stations to allow food vendors on and off. The constant buzz of activity made it hard to get any sleep, but really we hadn't expected to. 

Other passengers provided just as much entertainment. A large, bossy lady in seat A7 whose long-suffering, frail looking husband sat behind her took the opportunity to empty her large handbag, throwing anything she didn't want anymore on to the floor of the train. Every so often she'd find something that looked edible, picking the fluff off it before nibbling it. If it met with her approval she'd eat it, looking pleased with herself, if not it joined the growing pile of discarded items on the floor. She'd bark orders at her poor husband who would jump up and down on her command raising the window for her, closing it again, taking her bag up and down from the overhead rack. In a plot twist I didn't see coming she left the train after only a few stops, leaving her husband to continue the rest of the journey alone with a very clear sigh of relief to be rid of her.

Soon after she left a young monk moved over to occupy A7. He spent the journey sitting staring out of the window as if deep in thought. When food vendors circulated he would be given free food and drinks. He too had been enthralled by the previous seat occupants antics and had caught my eye and grinned several times as she went about her grand spring clean. He left the train about half way through the journey at a small village stop. As he left he paused to say goodbye and then again grinned and waved at us through the window as the train pulled away. I wish that I'd taken the opportunity to strike up a conversation with him and learn more about his life in Myanmar because I'm sure he could have answered so many questions.

We passed through farmland, small towns and villages. Kids flew kites made from plastic carrier bags alongside the track, eagerly shouting hello and waving as we passed. We ate parcels of rice with curried chicken and nuts wrapped up in banana leaves and unidentified dried fruit bought from hawkers for a few pence. I was careful to keep my liquid intake to a minimum to avoid having to use the notoriously awful squat toilet onboard, which Evan reported back was in fact just a hole in the floor of the train with the ground rushing by a couple of feet below. We watched sadly as hundreds of pieces of plastic waste were added to the embankment mountains along the way.

In Mandalay luck was on our side and although not in the most central location, we found a very nice motel for less money than we had paid in Yangon. Mandalay is an odd place. Built around the central Royal Palace, the town has several interesting temples and ancient monasteries. At first we tried to walk to everywhere we wanted to go, completely underestimating the distances involved. A visit to the Royal Palace gave us our first taste of the extreme levels of control over where tourists can and cannot visit. The palace is surrounded by a wide moat with entrance bridges at the north, south, east and west. Upon trying to enter by the one closest to us in the west we were quickly stopped by local taxi drivers who told us that foreigners can only enter from the east entrance. After a long walk around to the opposite side we had to buy a ticket and register our details using our passports with stern looking military security personnel. There was a brief moment of amusement when one of them looked at Evan's passport photo and burst out laughing at his long hair and moustache, incredulous that this was the same person standing before him.

The palace itself was interesting enough, a series of empty temples painted bright red with gold detailing and a wooden tower that allowed us to see the site from above. What was more interesting was that there were boards posted at intervals stating clearly where foreigners were and were not allowed, namely only in the immediate palace area and on one designated road to and from it. It also made it clear that photos of anything other than the palace were strictly prohibited. As were were leaving the palace an enterprising taxi driver accosted us and offered us a cheap deal for a ride to the top of Mandalay Hill with a French couple who hadn't wanted to pay the full fare. With nothing else planned we took him up on it and the views from up there really were stunning. As we walked back down we passed the Kuthodaw Pagoda, home of the 'largest book in the world', a series of 730 tablets of stone on to which are inscribed the Tipitaka Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism, each page housed in its own little white pagoda.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around other significant religious buildings including a beautiful carved teak monastery that had originally been a part of the palace complex but was now located on the other side of the city. With sore feet and little energy left after walking what must have totalled many miles, we paid far too much for a pair of motorbike taxis back to our motel. It's a funny feeling being on the back of a bike with an awful rider up front, but neither of these guys inspired confidence as we zipped through the chaotic junctions. Later we walked down near the river, much to the horror of the guy on the desk at the motel. 'But it's dirty down there, lots of litter. Tourists don't go there!' he said, which gave me some hope that at least some people understand the terrible destruction being caused by disposal of waste in such an awful way and that something has to change. Our final stop was at a little corner cafe for the most incredible mutton curry and chapatis that I've ever had. Food in Mandalay was a big improvement.

Having ruled out renting motorbikes, we had to decide where to head for next. Given that without our own transport or large amounts of money to pay someone to take us to places off the beaten track we were restricted to the confines of public transport, so it seemed logical to go to either Bagan or Inle Lake. Bagan was a must for me, but Inle Lake I had my doubts about. I rarely read much about a place before I go there because I don't want to formulate expectations and opinions that will likely shape my view of it, but several times I had heard concerns raised about the dire state of tourism at Inle Lake. 

Since the borders opened a few years ago tourists have flocked to the area in their droves and subsequently tourism related businesses have been allowed to flourish unchecked to the point where the people visiting the lake are destroying the very thing they are going there to see. Many fishermen don't fish anymore, instead they dress up in the exact same clothing shown on the front of a recent Lonely Planet edition and pose for photos for tourists, before requesting payment for their trouble. Visitors are taken on overpriced boat trips around the floating villages to see craftspeople at work making intricate jewellry and carvings for four times the price they can be bought from any other souvenir vendor in less commercial areas. As an additional kick, most of these items are cheap, mass produced rubbish imported from China. By many accounts the lake is a charicature of its former self and this put us off, both in terms of not being in the least bit interested in seeing a tourist show, but more importantly not wanting to contribute to the growing problem. Therefore we decided to skip it this time, a decision that I think was wise as we later talked to a French Canadian photographer in a restaurant in Bagan who confirmed our fears. He said he had been there and in hindsight wished he hadn't.

To get to Bagan we had the choice of bus or train. The memory of our long train ride still a little too fresh in our minds we opted to travel by road this time and asked our motel reception to book us seats. We ended up not on a bus, but on a minibus full of locals and for only a little over $7 each. The upside of this was that the driver didn't hang around. He packed the bus full of people, a couple more than there were seats for for good measure, and then drove at break-neck speed until we arrived in Bagan. Evan spent the journey with his eyes shut, concentrating on not getting tavel sick while I had a great conversation with a local girl who was returning home to Bagan after visiting her cousin at her university in Mandalay. She ran a small shop in Bagan and told me a lot about life in Myanmar whilst sharing her bag of pickled peaches and an earbud so I could listen to her music on her phone with her. Being a local minibus full of local people the driver didn't stop at the booth where foreign tourists are required to pay nearly $30 each for a pass to visit the area and as we were never subsequently asked for this anywhere we saved ourselves a sizable sum.

I've actually just sat here for a few minutes trying to find suitable words to describe Bagan, but I'm struggling. All the usual descriptors fall short somehow, it really is such a unique place. Bagan was founded in 849AD by King Pyinbya and by 9th century over 10,000 pagodas, stupas and temples had been constructed on the plains in an area of around 40 square miles. Today the remains of around 2,200 still exist in varying states of repair. A major earthquake in 1975 did much damage and another in August 2016 destroyed nearly 400 temples and has led to several of the remaining structures now being closed to visitors on safety grounds.

After checking in to what was easily the priciest accommodation of our trip so far at $28 a night, but thankfully worth every penny as the owner was the sweetest and most helpful guy, and a pretty good breakfast was thrown in too, we set off on our newly rented E-bikes to explore the area. Let me pause for a minute here and talk about E-bikes. For those of you who have never ridden one, imagine a big, clunky bike with chunky tyres on tiny wheels, that weighs a ton, has a seat made of concrete and is about as badly balanced as it could be. Add an electric motor and there you have it. These things were uncomfortable, had the turning capability of an angry elephant running at full speed, no engine braking and at full throttle barely touched 40kph. They're also silent which was a bit disconcerting when you're used to hearing an engine roar into life when you turn the key. For what we wanted them for though, they were perfect. For just under $6 a day we could use them from 5am until about 9pm at night. To be honest though, had we stayed out for all that time it would have finished us off, such was the heat and intensity of the midday sun. 

On our first morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at 4.30am, dressed and sleepily collected our bikes, riding out the the easiest of the sunrise temples to find. Whilst sitting near the top of the pyramid waiting for the sun to put in an appearance we realised our first rookie mistake - whilst it's hot as hell during the day, like in most desert places, it's bitterly cold during hours of darkness. Sat there in our thin trousers and t-shirts we near as froze. Later, upon our return to the hotel, although quite how we rode back there I don't know, we stood under a hot shower for over half an hour just to be able to stop shaking and get some feeling back.

The site we chose for our first sunrise was the Shwesandaw Pagoda, a popular one and we were not alone. Maybe a hundred other people slowly joined us and we watched as it did at Angkor Wat before, the sky change slowly from deep midnight blue, through shades of pink and mauve and the outlines of temples and pagodas appeared slowly through the mist. We'd spent the previous afternoon wandering around random temples along the roadside, but it wasn't until now, with our vantage point, that we fully appreciated just how many temples and pagodas there are in Bagan. Just before the sun started to peek above the horizon a couple of dozen hot air balloons took off and floated across our line of vision, perfectly silhouetted above the spires, moving silently across the horizon. It really is a sight everyone should see once in their lifetime. We stood and watched until the sun was well up into the sky. As you can imagine, it took me a very long time to whittle down the hundreds of photos I took, as the sky seemed to become more beautiful with every passing minute.

The next couple of days we spent riding vaguely planned routes trying to cover as much ground as we could. Before we'd come to Bagan I was worried that we'd get tired of visiting only temples, stupas and pagodas for several days, but I can honestly say we didn't and had we had another couple of days to spend there I have no doubt we'd have found many more gems. Whilst there were certainly similarities between some temples, each was unique and the fun was never knowing when we were going to find something amazing. Some temples had beautiful old murals hidden deep inside. Others had secret passageways or stairs to higher levels affording stunning views out over the plains. At others we met some interesting local people and guardians who explained the history of the building in their care. One young custodian told us that many of the structures damaged by the earthquakes had not been repaired because the views of the local people were that this was a natural event and that the buildings should show the scars, that this event was a part of their history and shouldn't be mended. I have to say I agree.

There were plenty of other tourists in Bagan, but it was 'nicely' touristy. The vast majority of other tourists were from  other Asian countries, a few from Europe. In contrast to Inle Lake the preservation of the area is clearly being considered. Litter bins are provided and the perils of plastic waste are highlighted on signs. It was one of the few places in Myanmar that wasn't stacked knee deep in litter. Vendors, while present at most of the larger temples were not pushy and were happy to accept a simple 'no thank you'. Kids would ask if we had any money they could have from our home countries and as soon as I said I was from England they'd reply 'fish and chips' and 'lovely jubbly'. I wondered often if there was a school for vendors that all kids attend when they reach the age of five. They were good fun though and interacting with them wasn't onerous in the slightest.

Bagan seemed to have a very laid back approach to tourists, or at least the people we dealt with did. When we checked in to the hotel we didn't have to give our details and we ended up extending our stay for several days without paying a penny up front. We just saw the owner each morning and said 'another night please!' and he gave us a thumbs up and a smile. When we rented the E-bikes we just handed over our $6 and rode away each day, no details or deposit were requested. I guess we wouldn't get very far on a few hours charge at 45kph! 

It is touristy though, with restaurants serving almost carbon copy menus, priced on the high side and the food nowhere near as good as the little roadside stands. At one point, thoroughly sick of rice and chicken, we went on a mission to find pizza and lasagne. I'd seen lasagne on a menu somewhere but despite searching high and low we couldn't find it. It was getting late so we settled on a local place that had pizza. Evan ordered a pizza and I ordered something else (very unmemorable, obviously). What was served was barely edible and served us right for not just getting something with rice. A little street kitten that had climbed on to Evan's lap and fallen asleep while he ate even turned it's nose up when Evan offered it the 'meat' off of the pizza. On the whole though we found food that sufficed and some good fruit shakes, albeit never again coffee as good as in Vietnam.

The best time of day in Bagan is early morning and around sunset. After watching the sun set over the plains from a much smaller pagoda, Law Ka Ou Shang, we decided that it would be a great place to watch the sunrise the following morning without the crowds at the more publicised sites. This time, wrapped up in virtually all the clothes we could muster, we arrived at the entrance to the temple and were met by the custodian, a young woman who had thoughtfully placed candles to light the narrow stone stairs to the upper terrace. Here we found a dozen or so other people, quietly waiting for the sky to start its change. Gradually numbers swelled to around 30 and with this a group of people that made many people present roll their eyes - the entitled ones. Mostly twenty-something backpackers, they swarmed, got agitated that they couldn't get the best spots having shown up last and decided that the best way around this was to climb up higher on the structure using the crumbling render and plasterwork as foot holds. Once the first few were up more joined them until there were maybe 20 people standing on a small platform above us. Soon enough the son of the custodian, a young teenage lad, came up to the roof to ask the people to get down, explaining that they couldn't stand up there. The majority complied, but a small, hardcore group either refused or pretended they didn't hear the boy. As he got visibly frustrated others stepped in to reinforce that the rebels must come down and that they should have more respect. 

Unfortunately we've met more and more of these kind of backpackers on this trip than I've ever seen before. Young, entitled assholes who don't give a shit about anyone else around them. Mostly we've met them in dorms in hostels, or even worse in guesthouses where communal noise isn't expected. Going back 15 years I can remember clearly that if someone sleeping in a dorm room so much as breathed too loudly when others were already sleeping they'd quickly be taken down and their selfishness pointed out to them. If you had to leave or arrive in the early hours of the morning then you packed and unpacked your bag outside the dorm and crept in and out as silently as possible, with a flashlight if need be. Now it seems that anything goes. We've had people come in at 3am, turn on the lights and spend the next hour rustling carrier bags, unpacking and repacking their ridiculously large backpacks and then watching youtube videos on their phone with no headphones, completely oblivious to the fact people are sleeping around them. When it's pointed out to them some look stunned as if they really hadn't considered that anyone else was there, others look at you like it's your problem, occasionally offering a half-ass apology and then going right back to their noisemaking. It's a shame because it's great to stay in sociable, communal places and meet people, but more and more we're being put off doing so for the sake of our sanity.

For our final sunset in Bagan we found the perfect spot, a little temple simply numbered '653' off the main tourist path where a young guy, the son of an archaeology professor, was custodian. Usually locked, he opened the gate for us and showed us how to climb up to the top for a wonderful view out across the plains. We were joined by only a couple of other people, we virtually had the place to ourselves. This time, after making the mistake of leaving too soon after the sun went down the previous day we sat up there until it was properly dark, watching the sky change from pink to red to purple before the last traces of daylight faded.

There are several customs that are followed when visiting temples and other religious buildings here, the main one of which is the removal of shoes before entering. Most of the time we'd leave our shoes outside, along with everyone elses, even though we were well aware that ours were usually more expensive than the majority of the tatty old two-dollar flip flops that accompanied them. We commented often about how inconvenient it would be if either of us were to lose our sandals, not because of the cost of replacing them particularly, but because they were the only other footwear we have apart from boots for riding and it'd be impossible to buy the same quality hiking sandals anwhere nearby. You can imagine then our horror when we returned to to the front entrance of a temple one morning to find Evan's sandals were nowhere to be found. We looked and looked again but in the ten minutes that we'd been inside they'd vanished. Some pacing was done, some accusatory looks towards the hoards of kids hanging around, wondering if they were playing a game with us, before the realisation sunk in that no-one was messing with us, they really were gone.

Not really knowing what to do next, but thinking that whoever had them couldn't have gone far, I happened to glance across the road towards a couple who were climbing into a waiting taxi having just visited the temple opposite. Something made me look at the mans feet and I was pretty sure he was wearing Evan's shoes. I went over and knocked on the window and asked the man to show me his feet. Indeed, he was wearing Evan's sandals. They have a distinct loop that stands up from the back heel strap. A middle aged Frenchman, the man feigned confusion, although his wife's face told a different story. He apologised, tried to tell us that he'd accidentally picked up the wrong shoes and made his way back to collect his own rather worn and clearly not as nice sandals. I was prepared to give the benefit of the doubt at the time but Evan was fuming and it was all I could do to stop his flattening the guy. Looking back it was clear that there was no 'accident' involved. You don't put on someone elses shoes without realising. He'd even gone to the trouble of unthreading the ankles straps so they were loose like his own abandoned sandals. By a sheer stroke of luck Evan had his shoes back but we've been far more careful ever since and haven't let any of our things out of our sight.

Eventually it was time to leave and after again considering the options, we settled on a train back to Yangon, this time a proper sleeper one with bunks for 16,500 kyats each (about $12 each). Just as we were about to leave the owner of the guesthouse appeared and upon enquiring where we were going next he grabbed his truck keys and insisted on driving us to the station, for which he would take no payment, saying that we had been really lovely, quiet guests. The Myanmar people really are wonderful, forever stopping to offer assistance or check to make sure you know where you're going. The more time I spent in Myanmar the more I liked it there.

And so started our train ride back to the start again. Luckily, since ditching the ginger based travel sickness pills for some stronger ones, Evan has been mostly fine on buses, boats and trains meaning we could sit and chat with our carriage mates Bob and Caitlin (Dutch and Swedish respectively). Each section had four bunks, the bottom one being larger and made of two folded out seats and each carriage was shared by just four people. Upon arriving at the station and seeing a French family with small children waiting to one side of us and an older guy who looked like he was already far further through his pack of beers than was healthy at 3pm we were relieved to find that our room mates were another couple of a similar age to us who had plenty of travel stories to share. They had been trekking in the hills around Inle Lake and had heard gunfire nearby which had unnerved their guide and was a reminder that although the borders are open, there is still clearly a large element of unrest in this country.

The train ride really wasn't so bad, despite the old collapsed seats with no padding, not really wide enough for two people to sleep side by side on one bunk. We also missed the food vendors who understandably didn't visit as there was no way through our carriage. We did manage to throw open the door at a couple of stations and buy some fruit and other snacks. The toilet cubicle must have had a leaking water tank above it because you got a free shower from above every time you went in there so I avoided that as much as I could. Twenty hours later, after not the worst nights sleep I've ever had, we rolled into the heat and grime of Yangon, seeing it with new eyes now we'd experienced more of the country.

Myanmar is somewhere that I think I'll have mixed views about for quite some time. It was interesting to have had this taster and I would like to go back again one day and see some more of it. I hope that tourism doesn't destroy it as has happened in so many places in this area. It really is a beautiful country underneath all the dirt and piles of waste. The people are warm and welcoming, quietly unassuming but curious about why we would want to be there. I hope I get the chance to return there some day.

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