Our second trip to Malaysia included a return to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, while adding on the perhaps lesser known Cameron Highlands and Tioman Island to our collection of experiences. They are places at the opposite ends of multiple scales: one featuring tea plantations and a cool climate, the other a chillaxed tropical island far removed from the mainland pulse. Part one, covering the Cameron Highlands, is here.
According to legend, Tioman was formed when a Chinese dragon princess was flying over the area, on her way to see the Singaporean prince she was in love with. A sudden storm forced her to seek refuge, and she noticed a beautiful area in the crystal blue waters of the South China Sea.
She lay down and, when she awoke, found beautiful fish swimming in and around her legs, animals taking shelter on her body, and travellers relaxing on her belly. Charmed by what she had created, she decided she wanted to remain there forever, rather than locked up in a palace, and thus transformed herself into an island.
Tioman today retains this sense of charm. It is pulse arresting, and we felt the rhythm slow, right, down, as soon as we landed. This is not an island dense with resorts, international brands, and mass tourism; most everything is locally owned and tourism is real-time island styles.
Because islands are disconnected from mainland/large(r)-scale resource networks, their finite boundaries force a certain innovativeness and a more take-it-as-it-comes approach into the local culture. You can’t get uptight about things that are just not feasible, or cannot be dialed up quickly.
We based ourselves in Tetek, Tioman’s most populous kampung (village), which really doesn’t mean anything. It’s on a part of the island that has the only road extending north and south a little way, and over the island to the other side. It also has an ‘airport’. Beyond that it’s forested tracks and boats in and out only.
We hired bikes to explore the road, taking us up to Air Batang, which is more popular with backpackers, and then south passed one of the island’s big resorts, which was so eerily empty it looked like the setting for a Hitchcock-meets-the tropics movie!
All of this was achieved at pace set ‘very slow’, an alluringly hypnotic state.
At our southern terminus, passed the end of the sealed road and onto dirt track, we were rewarded with an hour or so at our very own tropical beach. No bungalows, no shops, no traffic, no people. Total seclusion. If ever there was a Robinson Crusoe moment, this was it!
Later that night, 4am to be precise, our slumber was disrupted by a sudden howling wind. It quickly transformed into a wickedly terrifying storm of intense rain and lightning that literally flashed across the sky, illuminating the darkness below in bursts of menacing silver light.
I sat outside and watched the show, the low low tide making it look like we were waiting for a giant wave to come rushing in. I can’t tell whether I was excited or scared, or whatever the word might be that describes both at the same time.
However, it’s not desert island adventures that brings people to Tioman, it’s those crystal teal waters that first attracted the dragon princess. Today, people come here to snorkel and dive in amongst her legs, now transformed into coral reefs that encircle the island and teem with colourful and vibrant life. Pick a spot, any spot, and you’re guaranteed a good time.
Our pulse was set so slow that, in fact, we couldn’t bring ourselves to dial-it-up and do much more while around. Swim, snorkel; swim, snorkel. We did manage an above-water kayak on our last day; paddling out to a small islet and returning with yet another stellar sunset at our side.
Our last evening also provided the trip’s humourous highlight. We met Bernie, the drunk German, who regaled us with his story of visiting New Zealand forty years ago (!!!), and being lured off the Auckland-Wellington train at Palmerston North by a pretty lass who, it transpired, already had a boyfriend. His three-day stay there, possibly/probably drinking with gang members, is certainly emblazoned on his memory, and he returned to our fair isles a further three times.
Before he gets too old, he wants to bring his wife to visit the place he calls the best travel experience of his life. We promised we’d take him back to P North, and see if we can find that boyfriend, Skip, with the cobra tattoo up his neck. New Zealand being the half-a-degree of separation type of place that it is, I bet we could do it, too! Activate the Kiwi grapevine…
Our second trip to Malaysia included returns to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, while adding on the perhaps lesser known Cameron Highlands and Tioman Island to our collection of experiences. They are places at the opposite ends of multiple scales: one featuringtea plantations and a cool climate, the other a chillaxed tropical island far removed from the mainland pulse.
What was definitely true of our time in Malaysia is that the pace slowed considerably as we started to gear ourselves up, both mentally but also in starting to make real plans, for our return to New Zealand. Thus, four stops in three weeks felt like a good pace to set. So much has been written about the enjoyable albeit slightly chaotic capital KL, and the wondrous historic, culinary jewel of Penang. I thought it would be more interesting to focus on our treks to lesser known locales.
After a wonderfully social six nights in Penang, reacquainting ourselves with its history-rich streets and making new friends, we headed up to the centre of tea production in Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands. In an ‘only on the road’ kinda story, we walked into our hostel and right into the Germans we had meet in Georgetown. So we extended the social vibes for a couple more nights…
It’s pretty much mandatory to do some kind of tour while in town, and there are many options for different combinations of the area’s many different attractions: tea plantations, strawberry farms, look out points, an ancient mossy forest, and so on. We lucked out and scored a knowledgeable, friendly, and very funny Punjabi guide (self-described, interestingly, but actually second generation Malaysian-born).
Coming from a country with both strawberries and plenty of forests, and having done tea in India, and seen it again in Sri Lanka, the tour was really just a ‘something to do’ choice, but I’m really glad we did. Nick brought the area alive, explaining the history of tea in the region, as well as offering a lot of additional hot-takes and commentary about Malaysia for free!
John Russell, son of a British administrative officer, brought tea to the area in the 1920s, when he bought a large tract of land and established the still functioning Boh plantation, now run by his granddaughter. From this time, it became a popular summer retreat for British elite types, and is now even more popular among local tourists – for the same reasons – as well as Japanese retirees (remembering that Japan occupied Malaya during the final four years of WWII).
You never see the Japanese retirees, they keep to themselves; by contrast locals were everywhere, especially as it was an end-of-Ramadan new year holiday weekend when we were in town!
The original South Indian labourers have largely left tea now, moving into other business and agricultural interests, and some have done very well. Sadly, they have been replaced by cheaper new migrants from Bangladesh. Our jolly guesthouse owner, the (grand)daughter of one of those original migrants, laughed when she told us that the Chinese tourists have not discovered Cameron yet, as there are no shopping malls here!
Aside from tours, the Highlands are known as a walker’s delight, offering a large number of tracks and treks, of varying length and difficulty, for visitors to undertake (or not) at will.
On our first day, we hiked up to the top of track number ten, offering us views back down and across the Highlands. Interestingly, we were met outside of our hostel by a local dog, who started following us, and seemingly knowing exactly where we were going, proceeded to lead us all the way to the top of the track.
We decided that that’s what local dogs do, and there were a number about: play tour guide for tourists, get in their daily exercise, and nine times out of ten, get fed as a reward. Unfortunately, we literally didn’t have anything edible with us, although had decided we’d find something to feed him once we got back down. Clearly he wasn’t prepared to wait that long, and ditched us at the top for another couple that’d come along. Charming!
On our last day we took the opposite approach, walking down track nine to find a waterfall – fairly lame – and continuing down towards a reservoir and power station. We didn’t quite realise how much down was involved, and were at the point of deciding whether to continue (whether our knees could handle it) when the heavens literally opened and, within minutes, we were soaked through. So it ended up being a jungle trek scramble back to the top. The waterfall was at least a little more interesting on the return!
For the first part of the I-swear-it’s-true story, click here. We were at the point of finally being left alone and trying to work out how we are going to get out of a NZD$16,000 timeshare hardsell.
I should point out that Sean left us alone at many times over the course of the show, and I did wonder at one point whether we were being bugged (once he left his phone on the table); a way of scoping out whether we were serious or wasting their time.
At some point during this dance, I can’t remember quite when, Sean also realises he ‘forgot’ to tell us about the annual USD$400 membership fee. Whoops. He’ll talk to boozeman boss Andy. He returns. Because it was his mistake and he forgot to tell us – how silly of him – they’ll wipe the fee for the first year. How generous. I wonder if he forgets this every time he does this performance?
We continue talking/laughing about how we find ourselves in these ridiculous situations. Another card is put on the table: they’ll throw in a week at Patong Bay Resort for free, so we can come back at Christmas, and try the product before we might have even paid it off. How great is that? So that means we’ll get 11 complimentary weeks!
Another minute to talk.
Finally, the ruse is up. We tell Sean that, ‘regrettably’ – time for my words to appear in parentheses – we’ve been unable to get over the line. He races off to Andy; he doesn’t want us to leave without giving him one more try. We’re back inside. They’ll drop the price and allow us to take a five year taster package for, urgh, I can’t remember now. Whatever.
We’re clearly not swayed. We try the line that there is nothing wrong with the numbers, the package sounds great – did I mention that it was a family and friends affair, so anyone we counted as those could use the membership benefits too, and we didn’t even need to be there on holiday – but we just can’t commit to those figures without time to think about it.
But you have to sign up today.
We know, soz.
I try the tack that I can’t say yes to the four questions, the one about deserving it, because I can’t say that we deserve to spend that kind of money on ourselves, in case something comes up that we need money for. I thought that was bloody clever. Nope, there was even an answer for that.
It took all the acting talent we had, as I tried to play a character under the direction of ‘I really want something but I can’t commit so I’m going to display lots of anxiety and nerves’. Eventually, though, they gave it up, no deal, and we made it out. Alive. And ruing the moment we ever came across damn Scotty, and definitely the first and last time we’ll do anything like that for a fellow Kiwi!
Oh, the prizes you ask? We did indeed get the promised T shirt, which is now a useful pajama tee providing all the LOLs. And my major prize? Which one of the four do you think I received? I won a week’s holiday at some nameless resort, with a huge number of conditions and hoops to jump through, including that you have to sit through another presentation so you can ‘learn about the true benefits of holiday ownership’. I’m not kidding. I wonder if anyone, and I’m sure every major prize winner ends up with this lemon, bothers to redeem it?
After the taxi dropped us back to the beach, it was after 4pm, our beach day almost at an end. After a quick dip, we jumped the bus back to Phuket town, kinda laughing, kinda in disbelief about how weirdly our day trip to Patong turned out to be. The better half, in his wise wisdom, made the point that, in fact, it was kinda perfect: Patong’s scummy, scammy-ness encapsulated in the most bizarre four-and-a-half we hope we ever have to experience. Good point.
So, was it a scam? What did I find out?
In short, I don’t think it was a scam, and the internet hive mind is certainly full of warnings about real timeshare scams in Phuket. It was, though, likely a dog dressed up in glamorous threads.
We were being sold a package through a company called Club Unique, a part of an organisation called ILG. A big part of the pitch was that Marriott Vacations Worldwide bought ILG in 2018, for four billion dollars (US).
Marriott Vacations Worldwide (MVW), which was the timeshare part of the Marriott Corporation until it became its own publicly traded company in 2011, did indeed buy ILG in 2018. ILG was/is also a timeshare company. ILG, trading as Interval International, now appears on Marriott Vacations Worldwide website as an ‘exchange and third party management’ part of the company. This is how they are able to proclaim that we would be able to access the range of brands that are a part of MVW: Sheraton, Westin, St Regis, Hyatt, etc.
However, rather than just booking any room, you would be booking into these brands’ own vacation clubs, so a particular number of suites I presume they have dedicated to these kinds of arrangements. For example, in the MVW buyers guide I downloaded, the Patong Resort appears under the resorts that have only made 6-10 suites available for holiday clubs (covering who knows how many thousands of members). Many or most resorts fall into the between 51-100 category, to be fair.
So, the ILG website and booking facilities we were shown are completely legit, and indeed do provide some kind of membership access to the broader MVW club networks. What I was not able to find online, and quite frankly can’t be assed wasting any more time researching, is where the role of Club Unique, the club we were supposedly being signed up to, sits within this web. I couldn’t find concrete links between them.
Where the MVW and ILG websites have ‘about us’ sections detailing ownership and history and legal sections, Club Unique’s website is vague to say the least:
From a single, bold concept back in 2015, today, Club Unique is the result of the shared vision of local developers and real estate and hotel specialist alike
It does have a section about Interval International under its club benefits section, which states that they chose Interval to be their worldwide exchange and benefits partner. The resort is also in MVW’s buyer’s guide as an affiliate resort. But it still leaves me quite confused about who and what CU exactly are? The few media stories about them/the Patong resort I managed to find in the Thai press, read like PR press releases they’ve somehow gotten these outlets to publish verbatim.
Further, some of the figures in MVW’s buyer’s guide, about fees and so on, seemed to be less than the amounts provided by CU, so are they simply selling these memberships but adding their own cream on the top? Seems an awfully exhausting process to go through for a bit of cream, so I don’t know, and refer previous point about wasting any more time. So, I guess, unless someone reading this can shed some further light, it will remain an incompletely answered question. For now anyway.
While in Phuket, we decided to do a day trip to Patong, the real warts-and-all centre of tourism in this part of Thailand. We did it so we could say we’d done it, and secretly so we could pretentiously and smugly judge its outrageous facade; the worst stereotypes of farangs go wild writ large. Instead, we found ourselves having an altogether I-promise-it’s-true, you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kinda experience…
We had really only just arrived when we met fellow Kiwi Scotty, having wandered down the (in)famous Bangla Road with its morning after hangover appearance. We were both wearing black tops that easily identified us as such, so we were easy targets! After a bit of general chit chat, his intentions became clearer.
He and his Swedish ‘colleague’, like himself another slightly weather beaten expat, gave us cards that were part of a ‘promotion’. We opened them to reveal that, while one was just a T shirt (cue sympathetic ohhs), mine – surprise surprise – was major: an iPad, smartphone, USD$1,000, or a seven night resort holiday. They started excitedly jumping around. This was great news as not only had we won, but if we just went to this 90 minute presentation, they would get thousands of baht in commission and they’d be able to ‘eat steak tonight’.
By now we were well clued in, and really should have a) declined and b) remembered that no one ever beats the house! However we decided to do a fellow Kiwi a favour.
He clearly (not) needed a good iron feed. So we agreed.
Scotty played his part well, remaining excited throughout. A tuk-tuk was hailed to transport us up to the Patong Bay Hill Resort while he dressed up as chit chat what were clearly the screening questions: are we wealthy enough to desire annual resort holidays, are we their target market? Because we were staying in Phuket Town in a nice but budget-friendly hotel, he coached us to talk up how much we’d paid per night, and to really emphasise our next destination: a branded resort at Karon beach.
And so, upon arriving at the functioning but still under construction resort, what turned into an almost four-hour show began.
Sean, a Manchester lad of Irish descent, was our chosen narrator. He spent quite a bit of time establishing rapport. In retrospect, it’s bizarre how long we spent just ‘chatting’ before any talk turned to what the package was; although, of course, it’s also totally not, being clearly part of the game. He told us a lot about himself, and how he ended up in Patong. The extended version. All the while he was asking us questions too, obviously feeling us out and trying to find the little hooks he could use.
He mistakenly assumed, for example, that our black and white tops with silver ferns on them were All Blacks/rugby tops, and so assumed we were either fellow players (our builds) or at least fans. Wrong on both counts Seanypoos.
(As was also the case when we later met Andy, the big boss, who had recently spent a boozy weekend in notorious Pattaya, a place we avoided for that exact reason, and told us about how it got rowdy, a great boys’ weekend, and how his bank balance was now paying for it. Bad mis-read, bro.)
While this was happening, we were seated in an AC room/office with a tasty-looking continental buffet spread in front of us, told to help ourselves, and were plied with – not great – coffee too. If only we had no shame.
He then showed us around the flurry of activity that was a US$1 million dollar pool being built, while making lame jokes about Thai time and OSH in this part of the world. Another mis-read. The knowing laughter was canned, Sean.
(Side note: a hilarious part of the theatre of it all is how you are introduced to other staff members as the show progresses; the bit characters to the main event. They pop in and out, all smiles and delivering little scripted jokes.
Exhibit A: we meet the other British sales guy whose son is apparently going to be the next answer to the Arctic Monkeys. After he walks off, cue Sean: no he’s not because the band’s crap. Cue more canned laughter, and yet another misread: just because I’m a music scholar, it doesn’t mean I’m an instrumentalist, or that because your playlists are eclectic and could be anything from classical to hip hop, it makes you interesting; and why are those always the two ends of some kind of musical taste spectrum anyway?!).
After the first part of the show was over, we take a taxi down to the Club’s beachside resort, so we can ‘get a taste of what you could be looking forward to’, if we joined up today. The location was amazing – literally out your door and straight onto the beach – everything else was questionable.
The pool took up a large part of the resort area and it felt like it was full of shirtless muscle lads looking for good time girls to bang. The rooms were literally metres away, so there is nil privacy to enjoy your little private plunge pools. No wonder they were empty. The vibe was just a bit seedy.
I don’t know whether Sean picked up on this, or not, but he didn’t show us around much and we didn’t stay that long, just long enough to enjoy a coconut shake. Instead we returned to Patong Bay Hill Resort for the final act.
Now the sell finally begins. Back at the office, Sean shows us how we could book into luxurious villas that, on booking.com, were thousands of dollars a night, for ONLY $USD288 A WEEK!! And, because of their ownership within the Marriott family, there were thousands of these properties across the world we could have access to. No matter where in the world we wanted to go, almost, we were guaranteed to be able to find a week’s worth of five-star accommodation for USD$288, Sean told us excitedly.
By the way, I’ve started speaking these words in a sarcastic tone; you should read them likewise.
It was time to see what was meant by this, so we were taken up to one of the resort’s one bedroom suites, which we were told would be the minimum guaranteed standard we could expect, if we weren’t upgraded to something better. Admittedly the suite was fine, and the outside infinity pool tempting.
Standing outside on the balcony, overlooking the pool and view out across Patong, it was time to start building to the climax. We’d been told that, if we could answer yes to four questions – is it value for money, would we get the use from it, do we deserve it, and one other piece of nonsense I can’t remember now – then a simple yes/no answer should be a no brainer. Were the answers to the questions a yes? Indeed. Would we be able to give him a simple answer today? The start of problems ahead for Seanypoos.
He’d previously mentioned that he was a researcher by nature, investigating all of his options before deciding anything. I reminded him of this and that, as a researcher I would be very unlikely to say yes to something without taking time to research and investigate. I can’t remember his retort, but of course there was one. Something lame to keep us in the game.
We returned to the shiny sales rooms for the final reveal. The normal price for a 10-year membership – and that was fine as ‘the majority of people enter at the 10-year and then love it so much they upgrade to the full 25-year options’ – was just under NZD$20,000, but today, and only today, we’d get 20% off that price.
As a bonus, we’d also get an extra ten free week bookings over the ten year period, and so we didn’t have to consider the full amount, we could make a deposit – how much could you realistically put down today? – and pay the rest off over six months, longer if you need it, we’re completely flexible and it’s 0% interest, and the ten years won’t start ticking over until we’ve made payment in full, but the special has to be taken today. Can you imagine how the lines are starting to be delivered?
We sit outside so we can ‘talk without two annoying British guys standing over you’. And so we can finally talk about how we are going to get out of this.
To be honest, we weren’t expecting a lot from Phuket – beaches and Australians, mostly. Pleasantly, however, we discovered that our expectations were based on one admittedly pretty narrow stereotype. And while stereotypes generally carry at least a kernel of truth within them, as is true here, it’s always nice to experience a far more complex reality and come away with a far more nuanced picture. That’s the rationale for travelling in the first place, surely?
In reality, if it weren’t for meeting friends from South Africa, we probably would have skipped Phuket entirely for an island on the east coast. I’m glad we didn’t, because Phuket, both island and province, as well as neighbouring Krabi province, has a lot to offer. Like I’ve concluded about Thailand in general, I can see why it is so popular and has been for so long.
In our eleven nights in the region, I feel like we got a pretty good feel for its extensive range of possibilities – even if we didn’t dash about trying to fit it all in – and it does feel like several weeks could quite easily slip by without you even realising.
There are, of course, its famed islands; you can day trip to some, spend endless days on others. Which leads to its equally famed beaches…so many, such choice; its gluttony for sand lovers.
There is The Great Outdoors. As you approach the region, dramatic karst hills start cracking through the landscape, and reasonably flat although lush surrounds transform into something rather more interesting. A range of outdoor adventures await.
And there is also history. Old Phuket town is a pure delight, and a great companion to Penang’s more famous Georgetown. As it turns out, there’s a lot more than pretty historic shophouses that link the two.
We started out in Krabi, which is really just a little fishing town. It’s cute though and acts as an easy launch off point for boats to and from the islands. The night market, per usual, was the liveliest nightspot and provided a couple of great feeds. A wander along the waterfront and a visit to Buddha at the town’s temple, and we were ready to move on.
We next ventured to the far more tourist-heavy Ao Nang for three nights; a simple shared songtaew ride away. This is where beach lyfe begins. It’s not paradisically pretty, but not a beach you’d kick out of bed either, to appropriate the phrase oddly. And the swimming was great: warm, refreshing, and enough tidal current to make it interesting.
The South African contingent arrived the next day, and the glorious reunion was had. With so much to catch up on, there was nothing else to do but take advantage of happy hours that run the length of the afternoon and get quietly and joyously sozzled on cheap – but pretty average, it has to be said – cocktails. We settled on Mai Tais being the most reliable choice!
The next day we headed off-beach for a little exploration of the countryside. We made a final mountain climb, up 1,200 stairs of many shapes and sizes, to the famous Tiger Cave Temple; the views from the top making every sweaty brow wipe all the worthwhile.
As well as that, we were exploring the forest and caves at the bottom when we got caught in a monsoonal downpour. There was nothing to do but wait it out, although in truth it only made the experience even more memorable. While waiting we stuck up a conversation, of sorts, with a monk. As best you can when there’s no mutually intelligible language between you anyway.
Afterwards, as reward for our efforts, we luxuriated the afternoon away with a long soak in thermal hot pools, both naturally formed and human assisted. The rain had kept people away, so we were gloriously alone at-times; our own little forest oasis.
On our last day together we caught a water taxi to the popular, stunningly dramatic Railay Beach, for an afternoon of tropics swimming hemmed in by karst cliffs. And pent up exasperation of five months witnessing the Instawhore hoards of the world finally exploded in our own satirical photo shoot, although I’m not sure those close by, who we were essentially openly mocking, got it. Oi vey…
Our final six days we headed onto Phuket island itself, although it’s so large it doesn’t necessarily feel like an island. We spent three days in old Phuket town, and the last three days lazing it out on Karon beach (with a side trip to neighbouring Kata beach). There, it was essentially a regimented beach-pool, beach-pool routine.
Phuket town, though, is a real charmer, similar to but smaller than Penang’s Georgetown. There are real links between the two, with Georgetown having acted as something of a blueprint as the tin mining centre came into being. English style architecture and administration were imported, there is the same history of Chinese migrants intermarrying with locals to create a fusion Baba Nonya culture, and existing Penangites were in fact drawn to the opportunities Phuket presented. So it’s no surprise they feel like sister cities.
Like Georgetown, it has the feel of a living museum, albeit here a little more artificially constructed for tourism’s insatiable appetite (the historic centre, at least; surrounding it is a very typical, rapidly expanding Thai city). But when it’s so pretty, and so charming, it’s hard to feel bothered by a little well meaning duplicity!
Plus, it has one huge bonus. The island has a lot of beaches. Blessedly, they are all linked to the old town via local style buses (it’s much harder, or more expensive, to hop between beaches). It’s very easy to simply base yourself in Phuket town and explore the beaches via day trips before moving out to one for some proper aqua time (choose your beach right, and that will include Barbie boys and girls, if you should so want that not-looking-at-anyone-in-particular-Patong).
Speaking of that cesspool of tourism’s barrel, I’ve got a story to tell you about our ‘day trip’ to Patong, but I’ll save it for its own post…
The space in between Bangkok and Phuket (or southern Thailand’s many other beach-based options) seem largely bypassed by holidaying tourists, harried by time’s constraints. Fortunately, without the pressure of itinerary, we were able to take the slow road, making a few stops on our way overland.
There’s a real simple pleasure in hop-on/hop-off travel I reckon. By this I don’t mean the buses that promise you 32 sights for one ticket price, although the concept is similar. I mean making your way between two points, jumping off the main trunk line along the way with little little stress, little pressure, little expectation; nothing but time to let drift through sand-covered fingers and languid, sun-drenched days.
With about a week to cover the 700+ Kms between Bangkok and Phuket, we decided to make three stops, at Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan, and Chumphon, spending two nights at each. All were riffs on a similar theme, but each was interesting and unique enough to warrant individual meanders.
Our first stop was Hua Hin, a former fishing village that became popular with Thai elites after the rail arrived and the royal family built vacation homes there in the early 1920s. Within weekending distance from Bangkok, Hua Hin today is v popular with frazzled urban dwellers, but also, creating an interesting mix, northern European retirees (there are Swedish and Danish eateries amongst its varied offerings). We were there early in the week, so there was nary a weekender about; it was pleasingly quiet.
We arrived to quite the scene: the end of a clearly heavy pre-rainy season downpour. It had surface-flooded the streets, making some impassable, and meant we had to manoeuvre around a little. It extended what should have been a short wander, and we must have arrived looking like quite the sight. Especially as we were staying five star.
Yes, there’s no getting around the fact that, as a belated birthday surprise for the much better half, I had booked us in for two nights of early twentieth century glamour at the Centara Grand. The first resort built at Hua Hin, it maintains the finish of its original incarnation, rather immaculately maintained. It’s all dark panelled wood mixed with white trims in colonial era style, set among extensive grounds; the kind of place where you want to spend time sitting in different spots in order to enjoy all the angles.
We didn’t completely neglect the town, though, wandering in for dinner each night and a look around. I often find these overly resorty, touristy places uncomfortably artificial and just a bit too plastic. It might be because the city caters to foreign as well as local visitors; it might be because we were not there on a chaotic weekend. It’s more than likely at least partly because we were really just basking in the warm glow of our luxurious digs, transferring these feelings onto its surrounds. For whatever reason, instead of discomfort, here I was charmed.
As I have come to learn, once you head out of rat-racing Bangkok, the country heats up and the pace slows down. This is charmingly relaxed pace, small town Thailand. Take your shoes off and stroll around a little. We spent two days relaxing, swimming, eating (lots), a fancy spa treatment for the birthday boy, and what turned into a rather long wander along the rather fine and joyously empty beach.
The next day we jumped back on the local train and headed further south, to the bay town of Prachuap Khiri Khan. With hills and both ends, a few dotted islands, a pier jutting out of its centre, and filled with fishing boats, it is achingly pretty. It’s the kind of wistful scene that elicits genuine ohhs and ahhs when you turn the corner and lay eyes on it for the first time; you instantly de-stress a little.
PKK is Hua Hin’s even more laid-back cousin, only just starting to be discovered by Bangkokites willing to drive just that further bit further south. Again it gets busier on the weekend; we were outta there by then.
As with elsewhere, there is much to do and see in the surrounding countryside, best explored by grabbing a scooter and seeing where your wheels take you. We were happy instead to just hang about on the waterfront, the beach, the beach in the next bay over, and take in the spectacular views from the monkey-overrun temple on top of the northern hill. When the scene is that pretty, sometimes you’re happy just to sit and be in the postcard for a bit.
It was also full moon time, so the usual night market had been embellished to more of a festival type affair. People watching while trying a few market delights – perfectly tangy pork & vermicelli sausage, numbingly running nose-worthy spicy papaya salad, ditto the tart green mango salad, and sticky rice, kidney beans & coconut cream steamed in bamboo – was a perfect way to end a blissful couple of days.
Chumphon, three hours further south, was our final stop. Inland this time, so lacking that instant waterfront appeal, the city acts mostly as a transit point for travellers heading to the east coast islands. Arriving later than expected, due to a delayed train, we really only had a single day to explore.
No mind, we got in, dumped our bags, and quickly hit the town to find some dinner. None of the places I’d highlighted for our attention looked particular worthy; not enough to overcome the attena-pricking intrigue caused by a very popular local place we’d passed. We decided to chance it. Mercifully they had a menu in English, and the simple translations completely undersold the food that arrived: pure and simply a trip highlight. Click through for the full description; it’s worth it, promise!
There is, in fact, quite a lot to see and do in the surrounds of Chumphon, such as national parks, caves, temples, waterfalls and so on. With a fairly late start the next morning – blame the hostel room that in actual fact felt like a lazingly spacious and cool hotel suite – we settled on a relaxing afternoon exploring the northern coast/beaches. Off on our scooters we went.
While it’d be misleading to call the beaches and bays we came across of the ‘tropical paradise’ variety – don’t pin all your holiday hopes here, people…oi vey the tidal detritus, i.e. plastic! – it was a lovely way to while away an afternoon, pottering around the lush green countryside with nothing but the hot breeze against your face, making you retreat into the feels of childhood summers; short on responsibility, long on time.
Our week our southward meandering was a largely unplanned, on-the-fly delight. At many moments throughout, it felt like being somewhere gloriously Pacific. And, in our minds anyway, that’s always a good place to be. Am I right?
Five days in Myanmar’s chaotic capital, Yangon, provided us fascinating insight into the city and country’s present (and hopeful future). In other ways, we left feeling like we barely scratched the surface of this rapidly-changing metropolis…
Like Mandalay, Yangon has a history that, even by New Zealand standards, doesn’t stretch back hugely. Although existing as a village for far far longer, it didn’t become Yangon until King Alaungpaya conquered central Myanmar and built a port city there, from 1755. But the city was flattened by fire in 1841, and destroyed further during the Anglo-Burmese war of 1852.
After this time, with the British now in charge, a new city grid was laid down and a bustling colonial centre constructed. Migrants poured in, especially Chinese and colonial bedfellows from India, and the early twentieth century city’s ethnic mix was actually majority Indian for a time (although, despite the benefits of this diversity we’d today celebrate, it should never be forgotten that the British encouraged this primarily as a divide and conquer tactic, to dilute the power of the Barmar majority).
But there’s no getting around the fact that yet another fascinatingly dynamic and complex urban mass emerged from this history. A lot from this period – both impressive and crumbling – remains standing today, providing a veritable visual feast for visitors. Downtown Yangon actually feels and looks in many ways like a less chaotic Kolkata or Mumbai: the unique mixture of architecture, street markets, religious buildings, people; the heat, smells and noise. There’s Chinese temples and storehouses, mosques and Hindu temples, and, just like other British colonial cities, a synagogue and Armenian church!
The unique feature of Yangon’s urban form comes from its grid, with long narrow streets running perpendicular to the waterfront, designed to allow a breeze to filter uptown. Main roads cut across them east-west, creating a situation where each street is further subdivided into upper, mid and lower blocks. Many streets, blocks, have specific industries and identities. A book I’m reading at the moment brings this to life in wonderfully descriptive detail:
“Here on the corner, you can find a great local barber at the Thiri Mon; antique chairs and a cut-throat razor shave for 1000Ks…A bit further along, Mr Myant Thein proudly acts as host at his Penang Restaurant, where he’s been serving excellent Myanmar Muslim food for twenty-five years…Next up is World Star Antique Shop, once overseen by an owner who seemed intent on showing no interest at all in selling his goods. There were treasures here, such as British made antique Berkefield ceramic water filters…”
– Bob Percival, Walking the streets of Yangon
Although undoubtedly an energetic metropolis, Yangon’s infrastructure is seriously creaky. Multiple power cuts per day – on, off….on, off; even our hotel’s generator was taken out at one point – and chronically congested traffic make the experience just that little bit less accessible than you’d want of a big city.
The main bus station is impossibly impenetrable, more like a neighbourhood of streets, and is situated on the city’s northern outskirts. Once you’ve negotiated your way through the taxi mafia – Lonely Planet describes the city’s drivers as the most honest and courteous in Asia, to which I say hah! – you’ve got a long, hot, possibly hair-raising ride ahead. There appear to be bus/minibus options to/from downtown…who knows? Best you get a SIM use the local version of Uber to ‘grab’ your rides wherever you need to go.
The creakiness extends to downtown, too, which is truly shabby chic, but firmly on the shabby side. This is no gentrified city, yet anyway. Although wistfully melancholic, many buildings look perilously close to the point of being unrecoverable, the result of decades of, how to put this politely, ‘underinvestment’ by the military government. It’s left the city (the country, really) in a race just to get back to the surface, let alone soaring above the stagnant waters of inertia.
(As always, though, there’s two-speeds of economics going on, with some places being transformed, while much else remains as it ever was.)
But, in spite of all this, Yangon has that magic ingredient – intrigue – that makes these cities so interesting to experience. It’s just an interesting place to be in, to walk around its streets and make sense of its buffet-like range of signifiers, each a window into a different characteristic, a different facet of the story.
Of course it wouldn’t be Myanmar without a pagoda or ten, and Yangon is no exception. In Myanmar pagodas (Buddhist temples) are called paya, and the holiest is one around which the city was laid out.
Shwedagon Paya is one of Buddhism’s most holy sights, and the original pre-Yangon village was built around it. The pagoda contains eight of Buddha’s hairs as well as relics from three other previous Buddhas. Legend has it that two merchant brothers met Buddha 2,600 years ago, and were given the jewels from his head (presumably it was head hair) to bring back to Myanmar. King Okkalapa enshrined them in a temple, and one has stood in this place ever since. It’s worth pointing out that archeologists disagree, dating the first stupa back to the Mon period, between the sixth and tenth centuries.
Either way, it is without doubt one of the country’s more remarkable paya, and we spent a great deal of time inching our way around the complex, watching the throngs of people praying and making offerings at the large number of adjacent halls, temples and birth day images. In fact, aside from the neighbouring Maya Wizaya, it was the only one we visited whilst in the city.
(Maya Wizaya was built in the 1980s and is notable for being one of the few you can walk inside, where you’ll find fake trees crawling up the sides, leading to fantastical depictions of constellations. Quite unique.)
I left Yangon wishing I could have spent longer there. There’s a lot to see and much we didn’t get to experience: parks, museums, neighbourhoods, paya; even downtown felt barely scratched. Alas, however, our visas were up and our flights back to Thailand booked. It was time to move between borders once again.
(Full disclosure, though: our Yangon experience was quite unlike the other places we’ve visited to date. We have friends there, you see, part of the expat community providing knowledge and expertise to assist in the country’s continued development. We spent the last day of our first visit with them, being absolutely treated to a five-star brunch buffet, one whose sheer scale made my eyes spin around like a stunned cartoon character.
On our return from the South, we stayed with them, and spent our final weekend chilling, yarning, eating, and learning about their lives as a gay expat couple in Yangon. These experiences undoubtedly influence the desire of return, the desire to better see and know the city; perhaps I feel like I didn’t get there, yet, not in the usual fashion of our meandering, anyway.)
With our Myanmar expedition drawing quickly to a close, we only had time for a couple of quick stops in the lush countryside southeast of Yangon. Still, we managed to fit a fair whack into four days.
Our first stop was six hours away, Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin state. In reality a pretty small, scruffy town, its nonetheless pretty riverside location was not the reason for our visit. We were there for the surrounding countryside, full of villages, caves and karst hills.
With only a day to spend, we quickly signed up for what turned into a very long day of sightseeing. We were away by 8.30am the next morning and not back until after 7pm, puttering around in a very slow open-air share taxi, pulled along by a motorcycle (we were seven people; us, couples from France and Denmark, and the driver). It was, at least, a good way to see the countryside: slowly. Well slow enough to say hello to villagers as we puttered on by.
It was also a day of many sights; some were magnificently epic, and some were more historically/sacredly important.
Saddan, football stadium-sized, apparently, although I don’t know who’s doing the measuring, was an example of the epic. Replete with Buddha images at its entrance, before disappearing into winding blackness, festoon lighting, squealing bats and ‘cathedral-high’ stalactites, it had a bit of something for everyone! At the other end you emerge into serene countryside, from where ‘fisherman’ will gladly glide you through a second watery cave, and you then walk back around.
Yathaypyan cave, at the other end of the day, provided a similar experience in terms of scale, with expansive countryside views the payoff for persevering through darkness and rocky terrain barefoot (these are temples, remember).
Kyauk Kalap and Kawgun cave are significant in different ways. Kyauk Kalap is a pagoda that sits atop a skinny finger of sheer rock that protrudes straight up out of a(n albeit artificially constructed) lake. A monastery and temple sit nearby and the whole setting is so serene and peace-inducing you can’t help but not calm the hell down. A photo display inside the temple, showing rituals and festivals, indicate its importance as a sacred place.
Kawgun cave provided the day’s historic ‘wow’ moment. Dating from the seventh century, the path leading up to and inside the cave is lined with thousands of Buddha images. Regrettably, a few years ago, a cement company blasting through rock caused some to crack and fall off; fortunately, it is still a stunning sight.
The day ended with a surreal ‘wow’ moment, as we watched literally thousands of bats stream out of a cave. We arrived as dusk was falling, poking our heads in the cave to see how workers spend their days collecting bat shit to sell as fertiliser; the smell was unimaginably overwhelming. We lasted mere seconds before backing out and climbing to a viewing platform beside it, to settle in and wait.
Luckily the bats took their sweet time, so long in fact that the light was fading and the now group of backpackers seated at the top began to fall away, worried about it being too dark to find our way back down.
We arrived at the bottom just in time to see them swarming out overhead. Where I’d imagined lots of screeching and squealing, a real circus orchestra, it was instead like a silent rushing river of featherweight flapping; on and on and on and on. It was a surreal moment; we collectively gasped and expressed awe at a completely new experience; it was a fitting way to end our short time in this beautiful part of the country.
The next day we jumped a further two hours south, to Mawlaymine (Moulmein), which was the first colonial capital established by the British. You can immediately see its appeal, sitting as it does at a strategic bend in a wide river system. It’s lush, it’s green, and a row of pagoda-topped hills overlook the small city. It’s a romantic setting that, currently, isn’t doing a great job of telling its story.
Supposedly the city has colonial era charm, buildings, churches and mosques, and old communities. It’s somewhat true. It certainly has the feel of an old tropics town, full of intriguing stories and histories of those drawn here in days gone by. But the historic jewels are presently camouflaged. It’s like all the pieces of the product are there, but someone just needs to put them together in a way that visitors can access. At the moment you have to essentially root around mapless.
Nonetheless, wandering along the hills, taking in the pagodas and views below, and then strolling down for a scootch around was an easily enjoyable way to pass an afternoon. The pagodas alone are stunning, and we’re kind of experts in mapless meandering at this point!
Otherwise it was again the countryside that was a key reason for our visit, this time to see the world’s largest reclining Buddha, and to climb a wee hill. We set off on scooters the next day, accompanied by Audrey from France, who tagged along for the ride.
Buddha sits ‘draped across green hillsides’ and is surrounded by a ‘forest of other pagodas and shrines’. In reality, the setting is nowhere near as serene and beautiful as those descriptions might have you believe. It is, or is well on the way to, becoming a kind of Disneyfied tourist theme park, Burmese-style. Nonetheless, it was still a surreal experience.
Where I’d anticipated a 570 foot-long hollow structure, with a moment of ‘wow’ as you entered, instead Buddha is actually filled with rooms, so many rooms, with each recounting scenes from (presumably) Buddhist texts that get progressively more violent. Further, the more you ventured away from the entrance, the less complete they were, until you reached where Buddha’s reclining arm will be, and effectively were in a roofless building site. It was all rather strange.
We moved on to a more straightforward experience: climbing Kyauktalon Taung, a pretty steep, craggy hill rising from the flat agricultural fields around it. A plenty sweaty scramble, the summit as always afforded stellar views, and an unexpected cave at the bottom an added free gift with purchase.
For our final stop we visited the Pa-Auk-Taw-Ya monastery. One of the largest in the country, it covers 513 hectares of lush woodland setting, and is peppered with all things monasterial. It was lovely to ride through and to get an idea of what all those sparse and abstract ruins we’ve visited this year would have actually been like in their heydays. Further, Audrey wanted to visit the meditation centre, and I’m so glad we did; it was another completely new experience.
Ascending the steps to the centre, which is effectively a large two-level wooden structure consisting of two halls, signs warn you to respect the sanctity of the place by maintaining silence. So you do. The upper meditation hall, stunning as it is with glossy wood panelling, was a standard temple affair, all lit up with a Buddha image at one end. A few monks were sitting in quiet contemplation.
The lower level though was in darkness and, peering through the open windows, all you could see were ghostly orbs of monks and meditators, sitting completely motionless under mosquito nets with the outside light passing through them. It was totally silent and totally calm, and was quite eerie, although not in a menacing way. It was one of those moments where you have no prior experiences to call on to make sense of the scene, so you just drink it in as it is. All you can be is grateful for the privilege of having such unique experiences. And so you are.
I was not expecting to find myself smoking a cigar on Inle Lake, but there you go. When in Rome and all that. One of the last stops on our day trip, the cigar factory was a fascinating lesson in what goes into them (tobacco, obvs, but also spices, local honey, alcohol and so on) and how they’re wrapped in local cheroot leaf and fitted with a filter made from corn husk. All natural. And so, surprisingly, I found myself enjoying the distinctive taste of a star anise cigar.
The longboat tour is the quintessential Inle Lake experience. Yes it’s contrived: the stops at little lakeside industries, the ‘fishermen’ that we were later told only come to life as the boats float by, like some kind of tourist-operated animatronic, the floating market that is essentially complete gimmick (the real local markets take place in the villages that surround the lake). But, like most things in life, you take the good with the tack, and if you accept it for what it is, then it’s quite enjoyable.
Besides which, it does provide interesting insight into local cottage industries, such as the cigars, and also silver making process, weaving and making fabric from a silk-like residue from lotus stalks (who knew?).
In between these is when, floating around, you catch glimpses of daily life on the water: the wonderful array of produce grown on or basically in the water; the huge operations that collect seaweed used as a natural fertiliser*; the rhythms of daily life where houses are perched above a liquid earth and longboats are cars, buses and taxis, gliding through liquid roads.
The entire area has a rotating market that works on a shifting five-day schedule. People from local hill tribes, villages and towns come from all over to buy and sell goods and produce. The day before, it happened to be in Nyaung Shwe, the main tourist town, so we’d already had our fill of market action.
Thus, we skipped it entirely and siddled around to the village of Indein instead. Around the heavily touristed village lie a number of old (but not ancient) crumbling stupas; I don’t think we were quite expecting the numbers of stalls and restaurants and tour touts that greeted us.
No mind: the real reason to visit is the 1,054 stupas (in better condition) that sit at the top of a hill. Beyond that, a slightly hidden track leads to a further stupa from where you are afforded magnificent views of the lush countryside. Local kids will probably show you while simultaneously asking for money; otherwise you just scrub around. The stupas are also fascinating, with many now renovated using donations from refugees/migrants who emigrated overseas and did well.
The standard day trip also includes another couple of important stops.
History seeps out of the dark wooden walls of the ‘jumping cat’ monastery. There are no longer jumping cats though, with our feline friends these days preferring to lie around rather than perform the tricks of their better trained predecessors! It has a stunning collection of ancient wooden Buddhas in the main shrine, in different styles (Shan, Tibetan, etc.), which make a delightful break from the usual gold covered images.
Speaking of gold, the Phaung Daw Oo temple is the holiest in the region, because it houses five ancient Buddha images that have been transformed into amorphous golden blobs due to the sheer amount of gold leaf applied to them by devotees. We didn’t know this beforehand, but could tell by the size and embellishments of the temple they were housed in, combined with the number of people taking selfies with them, that these strange looking blobs were clearly significant and sacred.
The Inle experience is complemented by its surrounds – the temple-topped hills that dot the landscape, temple caves, the lush, rice paddy-infused countryside – so we grabbed bicycles and spent a day tutuing about. It was so quiet, and peaceful, and empty, it felt like cycling around rural New Zealand at the height of summer. It was a lovely way to spend a day in the freedom of countryside and warm breeze.
Spectacular sights aside, Inle will always have a further special place in the memory banks, as gastronomic rehabilitator. While the temples at Bagan were unquestionably a highlight, gastronomically speaking it was not unlike its surrounds: sparse and arid; a bit of a desert. Combined with a bit hit-or-miss eating at our previous two stops and I was starting to fear that Myanmar was going to disappoint in the all important eating stakes.
Thankfully, Inle delivered in spades.
We spent the four nights eating at only two restaurants: Indian food that made us feel like we were back in India (hallelujah!) and a Shan eatery that was gobsmackingly good. Thinking about sticky noodles infused with peanut, multiple textural salad delights, tasty local vege dishes and super tasty fish has me salivating at the memory.
Our two lunches in and around the lake were also great. At the whim of a commission-linked boat driver, I had reservations, but he took us to a delightful restaurant set over the water. Local lake fish curry, vibrantly red, with fermented bean fried rice and watergrass and oyster more than hit the spot. Our cycling tour, meanwhile, took us to a wonderful little place, set amongst lush countryside, and brought us yet more super delicious fish and crazily imaginative ginger and carrot salads. Cooks here are the masters of salads!
Getting there, away, and around: how we did it
Thankfully, all was super simple. The guide books that tell you there’s no direct transport are now out of date. We were able to book our OK express minibus direct from Bagan to Nyaungshwe through our guesthouse; as I explained elsewhere, there were other options too. It dropped us directly to our new guesthouse, the wonderful and recommended Aquarius Inn (if you were staying out of town, though, then you’d have to taxi from the local bus stand).
The good folk at Aquarius then booked our onward day bus to Yangon, which included a pick up from the Inn. Easy.
The Inn also had a boat tour, for which we paid 9,000 kyat per person (there were four of us) for the whole day. Easy.
For cycling, we simply wandered up to town and found some sturdy looking mountain bikes for around 5,000 kyat (8,000 in high season, from memory). Too easy. Spot the theme?
The only bung note came when we went to cross the lake with our bikes (the recommended cycle route takes you down one side of the lake, you boat across, and return up the other side). There was another couple there, and for the pleasure we were charged 6,000 kyat per person (a helpful local had told us it should be 8,000 for the entire boat!). Compare that to the price for an entire day trip, and you see how much the men, who are otherwise simply lying around rather than working, have got the poor tourists over a barrel.
Unfortunately, we had a tyre puncture so had little choice but to return to home base, but for sure, if this hadn’t been the case, I simply would have cycled back to town and then out the other side. The whole area is not that big, is flat, and the cycling is by no means punishing. At all.
(* We were told that, five years ago, the region initiated a collective effort to rid the area of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. I couldn’t find information online about this, although signs around town support the claim. It is important to note that there are dire concerns about the future of the lake, and especially the very real negative impacts that the tourism explosion has had.)
Bagan is likely the first image you’ll see if you Google image search Myanmar. The intoxicating image of balloons flying over an early morning, mist-covered and temple-littered landscape certainly captures the imagination, and was unquestionably a primary motivator in our visiting the country.
Having now experienced Bagan, in reality I’d say you do need to check your expectations just a little. It’s still a breath-taking sight, but those pictures were taken at exactly the right time of the year and in an era when the temples essentially represented an all-comers adventure playground. Visitors were able to amble at-will all over these pieces of precious historical taonga (treasures), in order to find those jaw-dropping vistas.
Today if you come to Bagan expecting an Insta-perfect experience, you may leave disappointed.* This is because you cannot simply climb all over the temples anymore. A combination of the impacts of too many tourists climbing all over them, and a pretty significant earthquake in 2016, have caused a lot of damage and make it simply too dangerous (and perhaps we shouldn’t have been doing this in the first place anyway!). Thus, the upper reaches of temples are now out of bounds.
*In saying this, if your budget stretches that far and you’re in season, I’m pretty sure taking the famed dawn balloon ride would come pretty close; they had stopped for the season by end of April.
Once a grand city, around a particularly fertile bend in the Ayarwaddy river, the 4,000 temples of Bagan were constructed in a 230-year long building frenzy, until the Mongol invasion of 1287 put an end to it all. At its height, it is estimated that a new temple was begun every two weeks!
In recent decades, there has been some very questionable restoration projects completed (a ‘Hindu’ temple that looks unlike anything we ever saw in India, for example). Some argue that the original boon of immense activity was a case of trial and error anyway, so they’re simply following in their ancestors DIY punk ethos, which is an interesting perspective.
Damage, degradation, and questionable rebuilding aside, Bagan is a pretty mesmerising and utterly unique landscape, as the photos hopefully make clear. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world that looks quite like Bagan. There’s days worth of exploration here, just waiting for you to unleash your inner adventurer and explorer.
We spent two full days exploring the landscape on e-scooters. It’s a large area, so we spent the first day in the surrounds of the Bagan Archeological Park, ambling through the landscape and stopping at points of interest (or anywhere that took our fancy). It was really quite a freeing experience, knowing that you could go wherever there was at least a sandy track to take you. And with main roads essentially squaring you in (or the river if you really went off-road), you couldn’t really get too lost.
If you ever held (unrealistic) fantasies of an archaeologist bashing through harsh(ish) landscapes to rediscover remarkable lost pasts, now is your chance to run wild. Run Forrest, run..
On the second day we zero’d in on the heavy hitters, the grand, still-functioning temples that give you an idea of how magnificent a city Bagan must have been in its day. Visible from all over, they’d been our orientation points the day before, and now we drank them right in.
Both days ended atop obviously more recently constructed viewing mounds. From there we were able to get pretty breathtaking views of stupa-pierced vistas – photos don’t really do it justice – even though on both days the sun failed to set in truly dazzling fashion (the pre-rainy season haze – not mist – that has followed us around once again obscuring the horizon).
To be frank, there isn’t one temple that sticks in the mind as being truly truly remarkable, but I don’t think that’s the point of Bagan. It’s more about the experience of the whole, not entirely unlike Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat. The key temples were grand, to be sure, but they combine with the quirkiness of others and the randomness of discovery to create the overall feeling of the experience that remains with you. And you can’t capture that in a photo.
Getting there, away, and around: how we did it
To Bagan, we arrived from Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), and afterwards moved on to Inle Lake. Both rides were with the same company, OK Express, in minivans that were, as their name suggests: OK. They were a little squashy, a little uncomfortable, and the AC struggled against the heat, but they did the job. We’ve certainly had worse minibus rides (hello Laos!)
From what I could gather, OK are only company plying the Maymyo-Bagan route, and it was the only option presented at our guesthouse. From Bagan there were more options, but OK ended up being the only company going to Inle Lake around the time we wanted (mid-morning).
At Bagan, it seems like there is no option but to be dropped off at a bus station 3kms or so out of town. We were, in fact, on a bus that went directly into Nyaung U, but were swapped onto one that was transporting the other tourists, and we watched as our original bus went to where our accommodation was, while we went in the opposite direction!
Tourists must pay a 25,000 kyat visitor fee, and this is collected at a stand on the way into town from the bus station, so this might be the reason. Either way, you are at the behest of the local taxi mafia once you arrive at the bus station (it was a pretty hefty 8,000 kyat for the 3km ride, where the 7-hour, 400km bus has been 15,000!). Yes, they’re well aware of how the tourism game works here…
In terms of Bagan itself, out of season Nyaung U was certainly the more lively and convenient option as a base (Old Bagan and New Bagan were very quiet, although fine for lunch stops on our days of exploring). Even so, Nyaung U is really just a large village, with everything a traveller will need centred around the one road. This is not a Siem Reap or Kuta style destination…
For the two days tiki-touring, I used the wonderfully detailed maps.ME (I’ve spoken of it before), Lonely Planet’s pretty extensive overview, and Google maps, to plot out a rough plan, which we more or less then followed, along with our noses! Day one took us in and around the roads that run south/south-west of Nyaung U, leading to New Bagan and north of (the blue tags), while the second day took us along the main road to Old Bagan and finishing off where we left off on day one, south of Anawratha Road (the pink tags). Of course the on-the-ground reality was not quite so linear, but you get the drift..
After our heady introduction to Myanmar, we headed northeast into Shan state for a quick blitz through two stops: Hsipaw and Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), one famous as an emerging trekking base, the second as Myanmar’s example of that colonial institution: the summer hill station. In between, there was also a famously rickety train ride over one of the world’s highest viaducts.
Recalling our random ride into the middle of nowhere, for our pilgrimage to Sri Lanka’s Adam’s Peak, our bus up to the Shan hills was one of slowly disappearing into blackness as night fell.
A region-wide power cut was the cause, but it was also a good lesson that, outside of the cities, Myanmar is an overwhelmingly rural country. I had imagined Hsipaw to be a bustling town, and exhaled slightly anxious relief everytime we passed through another small pocket of deserted darkness.
What if that had been it, turfed off the bus into unexpected nothingness? “Off you go, into the night…”
That is, in fact, what happened. Kinda.
Hsipaw is a large village, and we arrived to a fairly sleepy scene. With accommodation booked only a short wander away, we weren’t stranded. Still…it’s always a strange sense of disorientation when you have a picture in your mind of a place, and arrive to find it completely at odds.
No mind, we quickly found and settled into Mr Charles’ sprawling guesthouse/hotel/restaurant/travel services compound, and the apprehension melted away.
With any kind of serious trekking out of season and out of the question, we focused on the few key sights around town, with time to explore the countryside too.
Hsipaw was once the capital of one of Shan state’s many kingdoms. Quite unlike anywhere else we’ve travelled, where power was historically centralised, Shan state was comprised of 32 independent but linked kingdoms, ruled by sawbwa (‘sky princes’).
The story of the last sawbwa of Hsipaw is the story of Myanmar’s post-independence history: political, sad, with many unanswered questions. It is recounted by Fern, the wife of his nephew, at the surviving second Shan palace (in reality, an early 20th century British-style manor house).
The last sky prince was US-educated and married an Austrian women he met while studying. He was arrested, along with the other sky princes and key figures in the Shan state government, after the military takeover in 1962. But where others were eventually released, he was disappeared. His wife and two daughters were left effectively under house arrest and eventually fled the country, settling in America. They never returned.
With the coming of democracy, this is obviously now technically possible, but there are still too many sensitivities around military matters, and the daughters – now grandmothers – refuse to consider return until the whereabouts of their father is finally resolved. The military has always maintained he was never detained long-term.
Hearing the story in the living room where so much of this family tragedy unfolded was quite a moving experience; the kind of impact the best museums can only dream of.
Fern and her husband have been telling their story to visitors since the 1990s, when Myanmar first opened up, and when there was a real risk in doing so. They relied on travellers sharing details with trusted acquaintances only. The authorities tried many times to jail them, and eventually succeeded in jailing Fern’s husband for having an unregistered library (the unofficial grapevine would let travellers know that the couple, effectively prisoners inside their home, loved to receive books).
Now, of course, they are free to receive visitors, and are busy gently fundraising for the Palace’s centennial in 2024. What was fascinating was the number of locals in attendance. Chatting to a young Monk outside, who grew up in Hsipaw, we learnt that locals had no idea about the story behind the end of their monarchy. Now that they can, they are desperately keen to learn about their pasts.
Hsipaw is also home to the so-called Little Bagan. While nowhere near the scale of real Bagan, it was certainly a charming wander through the countryside just to the north, where the original capital was, and Mrs Popcorn’s restaurant, set amongst a sprawling organic garden, was a great place to stop for lunch.
We had intended to head into the hills on day #2, and end by ambling up to a hill above the town and across the river, for a sunset view, however that plan was scuppered when a case of food poisoning hit and required a day of rest, so the Hsipaw experience was in some ways cut short. Bummer.
Next morning it was all aboard the Mandalay non-express for the slow train to Pyin Oo Lwin; the seven-hour ride covers less than 200km. While it is as bumpy as the legend recounts (you do wonder in places how it is that the carriages remain on the tracks), mercifully, you are generally going so slow that it doesn’t quite have the same unsettling feeling as we experienced at-times in Sri Lanka!
The key reason for taking the train is to cross over the Gokteik Viaduct bridge, which was the second-highest in the world when constructed in 1901. It was definitely an experience. Visible for some distance, as the train winds its way across the plateau, it slows right down across the viaduct. This is to avoid too much pressure being put on the aging infrastructure, but ignore that and focus instead on the pretty stellar views right down the valley (interestingly, coming the other way by bus, was in some ways just as interesting, riding the very sharp switchbacks…)
After the choking heat of Mandalay, I can see why Maymyo came to be, offering much needed respite from. However, like every other ex-British colonial hill station we’ve visited, the tagline is a stretch. Hill station conjures up very particular images and I think maybe the phrase needs to be consigned to the history books now; these places have moved on!
These days, Maymyo is best known for its strawberries (and jam), emerging wine production, and as a popular destination for domestic holidaymakers. It will no doubt continue to change.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a pleasant stopover, although I wouldn’t consider it a vital stop on the Myanmar itinerary.
There are indeed many examples of colonial buildings to discover. While the institutional buildings now seem to be government offices, many of the summer retreats are/seem closed up and/or in varying states of decay, sitting as they do on large barren/overgrown sections. It certainly adds an air of melancholy to the whole scene; something I always find appealing. They are also located just outside of the urban centre, in leafy settings, so you feel like you are exploring the countryside. The story of these places, however, needs to be told more effectively for it to be a real attraction.
Alongside this, the town boasts pretty extensive municipal gardens (including an unexpectedly fascinating and beautiful butterfly museum and a tower offering great region-wide views), a few temples (of course!) and a pretty lively market area (ditto). There’s plenty enough to make for an interesting day trip.
The other interesting thing about Maymyo is its pronounced Indian-ness, and it was the first time we learnt about this (for now) little discussed part of Myanmar’s modern history. Once under colonial rule, Burma, in fact, was officially governed as part of British India and Indian immigrants flooded into the country. For us, walking around Maymyo felt at-times like being back in a hill town in India, and it also meant we were able to find good Bhuja mix and great curry. #forthewin
When we left Sri Lanka at the end of January, after a month of ambling about the Pearl Isle, we felt extremely grateful for the experience. Lonely Planet had named the country its ‘top destination’ for 2019 and, even though the tourism season had been quiet (a brief period of political instability at the end of 2018 seemingly the cause), there was a real sense of positive change occurring.
We encountered a country full of the kind of restless energy you might expect from somewhere plagued for so long by civil war, now emergent, and looking forward with boundless optimism. And, as I documented over that month, people aside, we found a country of immense natural beauty, staggering historical riches, and gastronomic jewels that left us enriched and energised.
More recently, we met an Indian/Dutch couple from England, who had been travelling in Sri Lanka at about the same time. Like us, they’d had a most fabulous time. In Kandy, where we spent a wonderful few days, they had befriended an enterprising young local determined to open a guesthouse, seeing it as a viable path to self sufficiency, to being his own boss. He had been saving and saving and saving. He had recently emailed them to announce that he had finally achieved his dream.
This was at the beginning of April.
When I heard the news, about the terror once again rained down upon this beautiful but scarred landscape, my first thoughts were about people. Before I remembered that we’d stood in some of those churches, passed by those hotels with perhaps a slight tinge of accommodation envy, I thought of people.
I thought about the tourism professionals we encountered, whose industry is now wounded. Much backpacker and mid-range accommodation in Sri Lanka is provided by family-owned guesthouses, and all over the island we were welcomed into family compounds and shown wonderfully warm hospitality.
I thought about the wild young Russian who married a local, moved to his home country, opened up a hostel in Galle, and now helps travellers to navigate their journeys. The father in Polonnaruwa, who spoke so passionately about wanting his children to know the past but to also be free of it, and to reap the benefits that peace was now bringing (and whose wife cooks some of the best food we ate, and this in a country full of spellbindingly good home cooking!). Or the young entrepreneurs in Jaffna, so keen to show visitors a different face of the formerly civil war-ravaged Tamil north.
I also thought about the many other locals we shared a moment with, nameless, anonymous, who were only too happy to point a couple of hapless backpackers towards right bus or train platform; the Muslim family who indicated we should stand by them so we could take their seats when they alighted off the overcrowded bus; or the many young checkout operators at Cargill’s who’d look at us bemused but smiling when we’d stop in for bottles of cool soda water and packets of ginger biscuits.
And I also thought about an old school friend who was holidaying in Sri Lanka as this unfolded, and was a good source of firsthand information. Fortunately she was safely away from the locations targeted and, while plans had to be changed – Negombo was off the itinerary – essentially, her trip continued. There was an increased security presence, of course, but otherwise her group of friends were able to continue moving about and enjoying the island.
I suppose that could read as a bit tasteless, continuing to holiday in the shadow of a terrorising national tragedy, but sometimes circumstance puts you in impossible situations. And whatever one feels about when the time is right, Sri Lanka will rely on tourists returning, and quickly, to help it move passed this attempt to destabilise its still nascent peacetime.
It has already been reported that mass cancellations are being predicted, as you would expect. How quickly the country recovers will depend on how successfully the government is seen to be responding effectively, in both bringing those responsible to justice and also to reassuring the broader public that the country is safe.
I hope a blame game does not ignite. A couple of learned Sri Lankan friends on Facebook have been quick to point out that the country does not have a history of either Islamic extremism or targeting of its Christian communities. This kind of radicalism has been imported, and we should not jump to any conclusions and assume it relates to any wider malaise or brewing of instability.
We spent our last day in Sri Lanka in Negombo. In the morning we walked passed St. Sebastian’s church and observed frenetic preparations taking place; a fancy wedding we assumed. Later that evening, returning to our guesthouse, we came upon a multi-coloured archway of lights that stretched down the street for literally kilometres, leading us back to the church and one of the most wonderful, bizarre sights I’ve ever seen.
Unbeknownst to us, it was the day of the feast of St. Sebastian, and we had stumbled upon the festival and special service in full flight. It was loud, it was musical, and a visual feast of colour and decoration. It’s an enduring memory of an unforgettable month; a celebration of living and the wonderfully diverse place that Sri Lanka is.
Just as in Christchurch (and, sadly, too many other places), time will heal these latest wounds and colour will seep back into life. There will be time again for festivals. I hope it is soon, and I hope it is shared with many visitors.
Lonely Planet opens its chapter with the words ‘it’s the rare traveller who immediately falls for Mandalay…it doesn’t have a ton of immediate appeal’. A fellow Kiwi we met had passed through a few weeks beforehand and, having followed her blog, it was clear she didn’t have the best time; not terrible, but a case of mismatch between anticipation and reality.
Add to this the rather more mixed reviews I’d been reading about its food – and, as I’ve reflected before, I now realise how central eating a nation is to how much I enjoy the experience of travel – and I had started to worry that Myanmar was going to be a case of incompatible expectations.
I needn’t have worried. As I wrote in part one, our initial experience of the city was completely shaped by Thingyan, the wild Burmese New Year celebrations. Thankfully, once ‘normalcy’ returned, we got the explore the city unencumbered. Mandalay intrigued me, and it really did so from the moment we stepped off the plane, walking across a tarmac that felt slightly otherworldly, or at least like an outpost airport in the middle of the desert.
The greater area was home to the Burmese kingdom, and is thus considered the cradle of Burmese culture and civilisation. Since 1364, with few exceptions, the capital moved back and forth around three locations, which today are the key historic sites to visit outside of the city (the kings had a habit of moving capitals, literally).
As a city, Mandalay only came into being in the mid-19th century, within what is now the fortified palace grounds surrounded by a magnificent moat. It was the last capital of the Burmese Kingdom. Its reign was short though, as the Brits arrived in 1885. The grid city layout of today was initially laid down during the colonial era, and continued to expand post-independence in 1948. After having been occupied by the Japanese during WWII and coming under severe attack, a lot of the city, including the palace, lay in ruins.
With this patchwork history, there is actually a lot to see. With two days lost to Thingyan, we abandoned hope of exploring the countryside, and instead focused on the city. What emerged was a fascinating sense of dualness: a city that is both rural and urban at the same time; a city that has fragments of the brash new Myanmar ripping through its dusty crust; a populace dressed in typical Burmese dress, while wildly colouring its hair a new shade of twenty-first century, social media-tinged, freedom.
As a relatively new city, there is an absence of history in Mandalay, both pre-colonial and colonial; not altogether but noticeable. Aside from a number of notable examples – some of the older pagodas, for example – much of the city feels and looks post-mid twentieth century, post-independence.
Post-colonial Myanmar obviously exists right in front of our eyes, but at the same time it is everywhere, it also feels nowhere. At the moment, it doesn’t exist in that there are not many ways for us to understand how what we’re seeing is shaped by its recent past. In other words, the years after 1962, when the military took over and the wall came down, is not yet available to us.
There are no museums or art galleries to fill in the gaps; no memorials to the disappeared; no urban history books contextualised against life under military rule. Although democracy has come to Myanmar, it is still embryonic and fragile. There will come a moment when those stories can be pieced together and spoken freely. Understandably, we’re not quite at that moment yet.
It is probably that inaccessibility that made Mandalay even more intriguing. What I’ve learnt at this point is that, for me, the best travel is where my interest is sufficiently piqued, where I’m intrigued and really want to know a place better. This is either achieved (or near enough to), or leaves me wanting more, wanting to return. Either way, intrigue is a key measure of success.
‘Downtown’ Mandalay is where this patchwork history is on full display. It’s a fascinating mix of some (late) colonial era buildings, some new cookie-cutter buildings (identical to other fast growing SE Asian cities we’ve visited, see Phnom Penh, Saigon, etc.), some more interesting new additions, and many more mid-century gems. All rubbing shoulders with residential houses, grand market buildings, and temples, along grand wide avenues.
I wouldn’t call it ‘pretty’, like, say, Paris, but I really found it fascinating. It’s an architectural wonderland (or possibly dystopian nightmare!) and I felt like I could have spent days in and around those streets, observing its rhythms, documenting its style, and probably making a nice coffee table in the process!
The city’s dual rhythm is mapped out on its grid pattern. Its urban pulse is located along its key arterial routes; busy, busy thoroughfares teeming with traffic, people, big new commerce, bars and restaurants. It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s new Myanmar. These arteries are most immediately surrounded by almost-as-busy suburbia, where the traffic is still teems but the shops and restaurants are more suburban, more family-sized.
But step back literally only a street or two further, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by unsealed village-like lanes. Here, a much quieter life is taking place. Mandalay reveals both massive houses and compounds surrounded by canal dwellings. From the atmospheric Mandalay Hill at sunset, you can see that even the most frenetic city spaces are literally surrounded by countryside, which engulfs the city as soon as you get beyond its urban fringe.
This dualness is reflected in the people, who are revelling in newfound freedoms and connectivity/exposure to the outside world. Typical materials/patterns and lungi-style dress (think sarong but more fitted and better looking) are still seen everywhere, even in young people.
However, alongside this, locals are expressing themselves in interesting ways: loud, big, comparatively wild hairstyles, and clothing I would call a localised version of ‘80s ‘cock rock’ or maybe ‘90s grunge (black jeans, old rock band T-shirts, checked shirts, chains and jewelry). It stood out so much because it contrasted quite sharply with the more gentle look and feel of typical Burmese dress.
It is such a cliche, but, after all of our traveling, the overwhelming friendliness of locals was memorable. Everywhere we went (or cycled) we were met with warm and curious stares, smiles, and waves. There were hand shakes, attempts to communicate across languages, English practicing with youngsters, a couple of full-on conversations, and an avalanche of hellos and his. It may sound silly, but having literally hundreds of moments of connection every day, even if only fleeting, was a real serotonin booster! I was totally charmed.
Mandalay made me want to go back. It’s reminiscent of all the Southeast Asian cities we’ve visited undergoing these hugely rapid transformations, and I’m fascinated to think how much it will have changed in five years, ten years, down the track. I feel like we only scratched the surface…
Two days cycling around Mandalay, what we did:
Day 1 – cycled around the moat, explored ‘downtown’ including Eindawya Paya and market area, lunch, back around the moat, Kuthodaw and Sandamuni payas, Mandalay Hill walk for sunset.
Day 2 – Mandalay Palace, Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery and Atumashi Kyaungdawgyi, Kyauktawgyi Paya, cycled around the moat, lunch downtown, cycled out to and along the riverfront, down to Shwe In Bin Kyaung (continue on to the U-Bein bridge for sunset).
With its patchwork history, Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, offers a rich landscape to explore; so much so that we extended our stay, intending to explore both the city and surrounding countryside. As it transpired, we ended up losing two days to Thingyan, the country’s New Year celebrations. We still got to explore the city, but we also experienced, at full velocity, how locals celebrate. For us, it was one of the wildest, wettest days to date…
At a distance of only a few weeks, it now seems quaintly naive, foolish even. We thought we’d be able to head out on our first full day (and day three of the four-day holiday), circle around where the main festivities were centred, and then spend the day exploring the palace, surrounding pagodas and Mandalay Hill, where people were no doubt gathering to make peaceful New Year’s offerings.
Within minutes we had become targets for ‘blessings’. These are delivered via buckets, basins and bottles of water, hoses on maximum, and basically any other receptacle that will a) hold water, and b) allow the blesser to throw it at the blessee.
Now of course it wasn’t the fact that we were foreigners that made us targets, everyone – with very few exceptions – is fair game. I should also point out: we knew that the New Year was celebrated here in the same way it is simultaneously celebrated elsewhere.
We had, of course, just come from Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where domestic and international tourists swarm each year to done water guns and turn the old city into a real-life battleground. Truth be told, although I enjoyed some moments, I found Songkran in Chiang Mai mostly, well, just not my cup of iced coffee. The New Year was rather overshadowed by the throngs wanting to bring out the inner child, and the at-times aggressive nature of it seemed at odds with its real meaning.
In Mandalay, it was the total opposite. There may have been a few water guns, but the only ones I remember seeing belonged to fellow travellers at our guesthouse. And while a bucket of icy water slapping against your mid-section is certainly not peaceful, a large number of times people came up to us to pour water over our shoulder and down our backs, the traditional way of offering a blessing. Some asked, some seemed almost apologetic (their gestures seemed to say, I’m sorry you probably don’t get this, but how can I not bless a foreigner?), and many waited until we’d taken our bags off.
Of course this is not to say we didn’t get soaked and have water coming at us from all directions at-times. We did, repeatedly; we were wringing out our t-shirts on the side of the road. And truth be told, after one long day of this, the novelty had quite worn off (which is why we spent the next day doing ‘admin’ at our guesthouse, aka hiding out in aircon!).
Any annoyance, though, was more about how disorienting it was, which meant we needed to keep stopping to work out where we were in relation to where we wanted to go (it was day #1 remember). However, we could only do this when we were sure we were in a dry zone and could safely pull out our phones. It just made the day a lot of start-stop, start-stop.
So, as I was saying, within minutes it was clear that our plans were going to have to become – and pardon the pun – far more fluid. Even if places were open, which they weren’t, there’s no way we could have wandered in dripping wet.
We decided, therefore, when in Rome…so instead of circling around, we headed straight for the centre of the action. Ground zero for official celebrations is the ring road that runs around the giant moat that circles the palace (each side runs over 2kms long). The entire southern half has been closed off and there are stalls, installations, and plenty of spaces for mutual blessings. Unlike in Chiang Mai, though, the moat is strictly out of bounds. Water is instead provided in large containers.
Best of all though, along the entire southern edge and stretching around and up the western side, there are stages, many stages. Each seems to be catering to a different audience – EDM, middle of the road Burmese pop, something that can only be described as Burmese pop meets Slipknot – and, in front of each, the locals are going wild. Water included.
It was a spectacle that won’t be easily forgotten, as was the intersection of the southern and eastern roads, which was so flooded…ahh, blessed…kids were literally swimming in the gutters. With such elated spirits everywhere, and as two of only six obvious tourists we saw, we were inundated with hellos and waves and handshakes and happy new years, and a few inebriated conversations in Burmese thrown in for good measure too. Sunshiney day.
Our second mistake – again, now acutely naive – was assuming that the liquid fun would be exhausted by late afternoon. We were kinda dry by this point, so, we thought, let’s tick one thing off the list and cycle 8km south to see the world’s longest teak bridge. It’s a 30-40 minute cycle, they told us at our guesthouse. Perfect, we thought.
Our second round of blessings were received as we navigated the increasing pandamonium of the streets heading south. The water works officially end for the day once the sun goes down, but, rather than tapering off as early evening approaches, they simply intensify. Pickup trucks, stuffed with people and stores of water, engage in all out battles with people on the side of the road, as the PM peak traffic swirls all around them. Log jams were occurring all over the place.
For our part, there wasn’t much option but to plough right through it all. We had to engage our best defensive driving skills, as our best avoidance tactic was to whizz down the middle of the road and passed traffic that had stopped to do battle. So in between buses and trucks and around bikes we rode; a little hair raising, fortunately no snarls, and it wasn’t always successful in avoiding oncoming waterwalls.
Once out of the city and speeding down an old main road, we finally broke free and managed to again almost dry out (thanks 38° heat!). We still arrived at the bridge quite wet, though, and a third, and mercifully far less severe, number of blessings awaited us as we arrived.
I can’t comment on whether the ‘world’s longest teak bridge’ was worth that degree of effort, but I’m sure you can now understand why we stayed indoors for Mandalay day #2!
Our week in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province, got off to a rocky start, with ‘dangerously unhealthy’ levels of air pollution (and extreme heat) scuppering our plans for hill trekking. With the flexibility of gymnasts, we changed tact and instead found ourselves on a bus to Chiang Saen, a riverside town on the border with Laos.
Fortunately, we needed to fill a weekend; and this, the hive mind told us, was when Chiang Saen would come alive with markets-a-plenty, as people from surrounding hill tribes/villages and neighbouring Laos come to town to trade and do the weekly shop. Sounded good.
The Saturday night market was definitely a lively affair, with all manner of food options available and entertainment via music and dance on one stage, and a more poppy DJ affair for the kids. We strolled along the riverfront – where we would eat all three nights – settled on a few essentially random options (local grilled sausages, chicken curry and rice, papaya salad, and baby pineapples), and joined the families eating on tiny chairs and tables in front of the stage. It was very convivial.
She burns bright and fast though as, wandering back just after 8pm, the majority of the stalls were shutting up shop. Delightfully small town.
The Sunday markets were even more elaborate, snaking outwards along streets off the main road, and featuring everything from bright Island-style print shirts, to electronic gadgets, prepared food, fresh food, and even live chickens (including those bred for cockfighting). Just as the hive mind told us, there was busy traffic across the Mekong, with boatloads of people returning to Laos with boatloads of goods.
Otherwise, though, we spent the first day and a half relaxing, reading, swimming in our resort’s pool, and looking at the Mekong. It was pretty glorious, and we quickly decided to extend our stay for a third night. If Chiang Rai was appealingly laidback, then Chiang Saen was gloriously glacial, and we had felt its charm immediately.
By Monday, though, we were ready to return to something more adventurous, so hired bikes and set off to explore the countryside. We started by cycling 12km north to the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, and now a pretty gaudy tourist zone (yes it was steaming hot, only fools…etc., although the area is completely flat).
With China just a little way up the river, busloads of tourists were piling out at any one of many ‘golden triangle’ photo opportunities. A group of Australian teenagers provided a counterbalance (of what I’m not too sure). I actually quite liked it, it was all rather Buddhist kitsch.
Across the river in Laos, though, there’s a challenger on the rise: the Chinese government has taken a 99-year lease on some land and is building a city clearly intended to become a tourist-magnet; think hotels and casinos and all that comes with. I’m pretty sure the Thai side of the GT will have a gaudy rival fairly soon. Battle of the tack is on.
My feeling was that the GT was one of those places without history (i.e. an historic reason for existing) and, in my experience, this always creates places that are just a bit odd, a bit rootless, transient and wild-westy.
This is somewhat true; the area in fact was named the Golden Triangle because it was historically the world’s main source of opium and then heroin; hardly a ringing endorsement for stable community. However, just a few streets off the trail, there is evidence of a much older history.
The Phra That Doi Pu Khao wat complex sits atop a hill – where there is another Golden Triangle sign photo op; oi vey – and possibly dates back to the 8th century. The current series of buildings dates to the 14th century and were being rebuilt as we visited; a pretty fascinating display of how temple reconstructions can take place. It was also, at one time, under Burmese control, showing just how much borders and power have waxed and waned here over the centuries (millenia, probably).
Further down the road, Wat Sob Ruak has been completely renovated and now, in my estimation anyway, is a temple to rival Chiang Rai’s famous white temple (not nearly as elaborate in ambition and scale, but a more serene experience overall). Both temples were a lovely meander, and a pleasant way to get off the beaten path.
Back in Chiang Saen, we spent the rest of the afternoon using an hilarious hobomap as a basis to explore the town, which has a long and fascinating history way back into antiquity. Later, it became an important city of the Lanna kingdom, from 1325, but was later captured and ruled by the Burmese (16th century). Because of this, King Rama I completely sacked the city at the start of the 19th century, and it was abandoned for a hundred years. It was only repopulated after 1900.
Because of this, it’s a fascinating hodge podge. There are ruined wats everywhere, a few that survived and deserve visiting, a small and charming town on a grid plan, and most of it still encased within the old double city walls, which are largely still in-tact but have groovy trees growing out of them. Outside the walls, on a hill overlooking the city and Mekong, the Wat Phra That Chom Kitti provides the perfect and peaceful finishing point.
What definitely added to the small town charm was that we were there in the days leading up to Songkran, the Thai New Year. Most well-known outside of Thailand for the water gun-heavy water fights that break out in major cities and tourist areas, here this was something completely different.
For each of our three nights, we watched as the town’s central wat, the riverfront, and the other main road that intersects its middle, were all being transformed in preparation for the country’s preeminent festival. And as it did, you could feel the anticipation and revelry start to ignite.
Around the temple and along the riverfront, festive lights were being strewn and turned on, and amusement rides set up and started in earnest. Further down and around the corner, stalls started to eck out their spots, and, finally, the fairground-type games came alive.
It provided us a real glimpse of Songkran small-town style, and, as we geared up for massed water carnage in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge that we weren’t still wandering along that gorgeous riverfront in that charming wee place instead.
Poor air quality forced us to abandon our intended plans for a week in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province. Fortunately, what resulted was the very best kind of on-the-fly travel: unplanned, nil expectations, maximum enjoyment.
Our final afternoon in Chiang Rai perfectly summed up how wonderfully random and unexpected our week had been. We had returned from a joyously unplanned three nights on the border of Laos, and intended to cycle north to the third of the city’s mono-coloured temple attractions – the blue temple – and then further on to Artbridge, a contemporary art gallery.
By late afternoon, both ticked off, we had a bit of time to spare. Zooming into Google maps, it dawned on me that the old and now abandoned Chiang Rai airport looked open for exploration. We should check that out.
Speeding down the runway, still stained with the black remnants of jet fuelled-travel, I’m not going to lie: the inner child surfaced, the one that used to zoom around the neighbourhood pretending to be a bus driver or a pilot (I had routes and stops and made the relevant noises). Don’t ask me why, but the child and now the adult has always been fascinated by the crossing paths of mass travel, the intersections of people going places.
It was a singularly unique experience: unplanned, unresearched; pure joy. Hot wind blowing on my face, I was sitting on a wing as the thrust engaged, and the engine roared into life. Off, off and up…
Our original plan was to hang out in Chiang Rai for a few days, soak up the atmosphere of the so-called an arts and culture hub, and then do something like a trek in the hills. Because it is now firmly low season, I put a shout out on a travel forum to see if there were any travellers about who might be thinking the same and wanted to band together.
Within hours, I had local experts asking me if I was crazy, given the heat and appalling air quality currently being experienced. They linked me to a website that showed real-time sharply red ‘dangerously unhealthy’ readings amid temperatures approaching 40C. It was fairly obvious we were going to have to change tact.
(Side observation: I always find it funny how you tend to become removed from the news cycle inside the country you are travelling in. I’m completely connected to news as it’s happening in New Zealand, but know little about events as they might be unfolding on the road. The latest Colmar Brunton political poll – tick; air quality emergencies in SE Asia – I got nothing!)
We spent the first three nights in Chiang Rai as planned, exploring its wonderful and unique quirks. The inner city moves at an alluringly small town pace, and we quickly complied. It’s stuffed with temples and markets spaces, cafes and massage places, and everything is wonderfully walkable and open; perfect for the professional meanders we now are.
Ambling around its atmospheric night market is such a cliché, but so enjoyable when the pace is set to relax and immaculate drag queens in their evening best are providing the floor show. Afterwards, we caught a further show when, wandering passed the already very campy clocktower, it suddenly lit up and started playing music. It is hard to decide which was more gay! Fabulous.
Just out of town is the inland Chiang Rai beach. It’s actually a long line of bamboo structures, lined up along the Kok river, where locals go to relax, eat, and swim. As the river rises and falls so significantly, clearly everything is dismantled and reconstructed every year. It’s emblematic of a way of life developed to be in tune with the rhythms of nature and seasons.
We had hired bikes to explore the surrounding countryside for an afternoon – always a good idea – and were further rewarded for our efforts by coming across a stunning cave temple. It was completely deserted, and so totally ours for just a little bit (well, ours and all the bats…).
Two eccentric artists are responsible for two must-see attractions: the white and black temple complexes. The white temple was at once both familiar and unknown. Its shape, design and embellishments were as we’ve seen elsewhere, yet its scale, flourishes and ambition are quite extraordinary.
Inside the temple – photography banned unfortunately yet understandably – this eccentricity was on full display. Alongside the more standard Buddhist-drenched imagery, representations of pop culture figures, from the Matrix to Harry Potter to MJ in full Beat It mode, were interwoven into a canvas of fantastical elements. Even such a simple concept as a lotus-inspired wishing well was mesmerising, and I stood watching for far too long, entranced by the way the gently rippling waters made the lotus appear shimmering.
I think I actually enjoyed the black temple more. It’s not strictly a temple, but a collection of around forty buildings, many of which are shaped like temples, but also igloo and other weird and wonderful shapes. They’ve all been constructed to house one artist’s insane collection of animal trophies (at least that’s how I read them), phalluses, drums, large furniture and other sculptures.
Although I found the combined energy of it all a tad aggressive, and perhaps thought it bordered on being slightly masterbatory, it was still a wonderful trip into the bizarre and otherworldly mind of a unique vision, carried out with singular determination. And that can always be appreciated.
And then there was the blue temple. Although white is the colour of peace, the white temple was actually quite harsh under the glare of the intense sun. I found the blue temple so much more serene and calming. The inside frescoes were similar to the white temple – stunning – but without the fantastical elements.
These temples are all out of town, the black and white at its northern and southern edges, around 24kms apart. Local buses can get you there, though, and the helpful tourist office at the bus station (indeed any ticket collector) will gladly point you in the right direction. To get back from both, we simply went out to the roadside afterwards and, before too long, shared songtaew trucks came along and scooped us up. I’m guessing flagging down a passing bus would have been possible too. Everything was the same price: 30 baht each. Easy as.
With Chiang Rai covered, we now had some days to fill and any hiking plans were well and truly out of the picture (the haze was bad enough to almost have us buying face masks, almost). So, we turned to the hive mind of the internet and found some information that suggested a trip to one of the small border towns would be worthy.
We decided to take a punt and, thanks to an online fire sale, booked into a resort beside the Mekong River. Off to the bus station we went, and within minutes we were on a bus bound for Chiang Saen. As soon as it was full (or near enough to), we would be off.
After finding our feet in Bangkok, we moved into central Thailand, and spent a fascinating week visiting key historic sites that bring alive the country’s precursor, the mighty kingdom of Siam. We were back to our intrepid best, catching transport local-style, but made easy by Thailand’s well-developed infrastructure and super helpful locals.
Our first stop was Ayutthaya, which is only about 80kms north of the capital; many people, if they bother, visit as a day trip. I’m glad we decided to spend longer in this small, laid-back city; it was a great introduction to Thailand outside of the usual beaches and Bangkok, and maybe Chiang Mai.
Ayutthaya is hugely important in the story of Thailand, as the prosperous capital of the kingdom of Siam for 400 years from 1350 (it sits at equal distance between India and China). Its end came in 1767, when the Burmese invaded and essentially burnt it to the ground. It was never rebuilt, and the capital moved to Bangkok soon after.
The city is, in fact, an island created by the confluence of three rivers. The island was Thai-only, so on the banks around it lie remains of embassies and other buildings that demonstrate its international importance. We stayed on the river, opposite the eastern edge of the island, and spent a glorious first afternoon relaxing on our guesthouse patio, watching the river traffic peacefully glide by.
The next day, we jumped across the river on the longboat ferry (<5 mins; 10 baht each) and, within minutes, had hired bikes (30 baht a piece) and were ready to go. The eastern shore houses a decent-sized town, but the further away you ride, the less urban it becomes. The whole island is literally littered with ruins. Most are singularly unimpressive, though, and many no more than a pile of what would otherwise appear as rubble; a square temple base or a single temple spire. There is more than you can possibly see up close.
For anyone who has been to the awe-inspiring Angkor, or otherwise done a fair bit of templing, I can’t pretend Ayutthaya will leave you mesmerised; these are, after all, remains of a particularly vicious sacking. However, cycling about its peaceful expanse is a wonderfully satisfying way to spend a day, and there is clearly a well-worn path.
The most impressive sites are marked on free maps that come with bike hire, and it’s up to you what, if anything, you see in between. We visited eight in detail: five old wat (temple) complexes, two gorgeously renovated wats, and the famous reclining buddha (racing to soak it up before a bus load of tourists, who arrived not long after us, descended).
The renovated wats were particularly significant. The first was built around a giant old (possibly iron) Buddha figure, with photos showing how it looked a hundred or so years ago. It’s been given a gorgeous golden facelift, and the building that surrounds it is likewise a stunning example of modern Thai wat aesthetics. The second was where the the Thai and Burmese kings signed a peace treaty, post-invasion, so is historically important.
The in-between ambling simply adds to the overall experience. You don’t stop at every site, obviously, but cycling through such a dotted landscape gives you an idea of how important Ayutthaya was. It allows you the freedom to stop, wherever intrigued, and muse on this fascinating history.
We decided to forgo a second day exploring some of the international ruins and surrounding countryside, and do a day trip to nearby Lopburi instead. Getting there and back was a breeze; more on that below.
Lopburi was also an important historical centre. It used to be called Lavo (6th-11th centuries), was part of the Khmer kingdom (although during periods of independence it sent embassies to China), before becoming part of the Sukhothai and later Ayutthaya kingdoms (during the Ayutthaya period it was at-times a second kingdom residence, so there are strong ties between the two). There are some wonderful wats and historic buildings to discover in and around the old town, and all are completely walkable within a gentle half-day wander.
Despite this, it is actually monkeys that the town is most known for. Illustrating the strong historical connections between India, Khmer and thus parts of Thailand, the mythical King Rama gifted Lopburi to Hanuman, the monkey warrior god, as a token of appreciation for his wartime support. Rama shot his arrow, and it landed here. Thus, the monkeys are said to descend from this Godly line, and are an important part of the town’s fabric.
The monkeys quite possibly outnumber humans in fact (certainly the day we were there), and they really do appear to run the joint; at one Khmer-styled wat in particular. Even if you’ve spent time in places where they are present, this is quite different. They’re far more brash and confident in their numerical superiority, and you’re likely to find a monkey or two jumping on you to say hi (a.k.a looking for something to snatch; hint: make sure nothing is grabbable by errant hands).
It was a fun trip, even if the temples and ruins are not dramatically different than Ayutthaya. It’s a pleasant amble about monuments that are scattered throughout a very laid-back town. There’s also a great museum contained within the impressive palace complex that helps to make sense of the different periods and kingdoms; the waxing and waning of different influences. A quick stroll to the riverfront, to see some frenetic fish feeding action, was a nice way to kill half an hour before the return train.
Our final stop in this historic trio was undoubtedly the highlight. Sukhothai rose as a kingdom from the 12th century as the Khmer kingdom (Cambodia), of which is was a distant part, declined in power. Although its reign was relatively short – replaced by the rise of Ayutthaya – and it came later than other kingdoms, Sukhothai quickly expanded its realm across most of current-day Thailand, and parts of Laos too.
It also oversaw the creation of a standardised alphabet, as well as distinctive cultural practices, identity markers and art-forms that we recognise today as ‘Thai’. Thus it is usually cited as the ‘first’ Thai kingdom, and a precursor to the truly national kingdom of Siam.
We stayed in the new city, a vibrant but still pretty cruisy town 12kms east of the archeological park/old city. There is a bit of a village around the old city, but, given the low season nature of our visit, we didn’t want to chance a ghost town vibe.
The new city was a good choice, coming alive at night with stalls lining streets in and around the centre, selling all the usual array of foods and so on, and serving a mixture of people wandering, catching up in groups, or doing drive-by pick-ups. A couple of great people-watching bars come with the necessary cool beers to offset the sultry evening heat, still nicely in the early-30s (celsius) post-8pm.
Sukhothai’s old city was a real trip highlight. A benefit of low-season travel is that there really is not a lot of people around. The archeological park is also vast, spread out, and split into four groups*. Both of these elements combined to make us feel like the ruins were ours and ours alone to explore, for most of the day.
And only crazy, freestyle tourists like us would bother to spend a whole day exploring the outer reaches of a ruin Mecca anyway. Most tourists, it appeared, were on limited-time, bus in bus out, whistle-stop tours of the central, most impressive wats. We did these too, of course, but also found many other moments of quiet pleasure.
Cycling around deserted dirt tracks, discovering remains of wats in what felt like the middle of nowhere, was one. So was finding Buddha images hidden from the road, up small hills that, in 38 degree heat, felt like intrepid trekking. Generally though, it was that well-worn cliche of riding through the countryside, hot breeze against your face and enjoying the peace and solitude, where the loudest (only) noises came from birds and cicadas.
For those that can relate, it reminded me of that truly glorious feeling you can experience driving in New Zealand, particularly around the South Island, where you can go for hours without seeing barely another soul. Just you and nature; you and the silent paths of the past. It’s one of my most favourite and treasured feelings.
We left the main central group until last, and this is really the only time we were in company. And indeed, the ruins here are impressive, and the park is very well maintained. It was a pleasurable way to end the day’s exploration, cycling around traffic-free roads lined with big leafy trees, surrounded by moats and canals and waterways, and imagining the splendour of kingdom pasts.
One other highlight is worth mentioning. Randomly, we turned up a street that was lined with 3D and pottery-influenced murals (there were a couple of pottery studios on the street, and one art-influenced guesthouse). In any other city, this would be an attraction in its own right; here it’s obviously overwhelmed by so much luminous wattage (see what I did there?). But what a serendipitous joy to see such an extensive display of local creativity and storytelling; something that is always worth checking out (it’s located around Pottery Street House).
Getting there, away and around
So far, getting around has been super easy, facilitated by great transport networks and helpful locals.
Bangkok to Ayutthaya was as easy as turning up to the main Hua Lamphong train station, purchasing a general class ticket from the helpful ticket windows (15 baht each), and hopping onboard the next train going (they leave regularly, but there are timetables online too). The roughly two-hour ride (yes, slow), with windows wide open, was more than pleasant, watching the comings and goings of local travellers (and some tourists too).
Ayutthaya to Lopburi was equally fun, and again less than $1 each way. The guesthouse owner gave us the times of trains, which we then reconfirmed on the day at the booking window (again, helpful). We didn’t take the one-hour ride until 11.24am, and returned aboard the 5.22pm (the last one was just after 6pm), so it really was only a half-day trip. I’m sure there are earlier trains, though, but it was nice to have a slow start to the morning. The return trip as the sun was setting over the rice fields was stunning, and again, people-watching locals moving about is always fun.
In Ayutthaya, our guesthouse – as I’m sure most do – provided a service of booking bus tickets and organising a tuk-tuk to take you to the station, as it’s not close. Thus our transfer to Sukhothai was seamless. The ride was pretty fancy pants too (first class), as we immersed ourselves in cooling aircon, with water and a little snack-box provided, as well as a coupon to exchange for lunch (we stopped at a purpose-built food court with a range of simple yet effective and tasty local fare options).
Finally, getting from the new city to the old city in Sukhothai was a breeze. Shared songtaew, which are like 4x4s with the trays converted into covered seating benches, leave from the main road (a generic map that seems to be handed out widely pinpoints the convenient spot exactly). In the old city, they handily drop you right opposite the bike hire places. To get back simply reverse the flow, making sure you do so before the last one leaves at 5pm.
* Inside the central group is a museum. Randomly, on the day we explored the park, everything was free, otherwise the museum alone would have been 150 baht per person. I wouldn’t bother paying 150 baht for what is a pretty average museum; the information provided and curation could frankly do with an overhaul thankyouverymuch.
So, astoundingly, we’ve passed the halfway mark of our trip; it’s crazy to think that we’ve been on the road for three whole months.
On the one hand, time seems to be rushing passed us this time, unlike 2013, when the landscape in front of us seemed endless, for so long. Everything was new then, every day a sensory overload, hour-by-hour to be savoured. It definitely is a different experience second time around.
But on the other hand, thinking back to the day we rolled into Colombo and the huge distance we’ve covered since, you realise just how much you’ve seen, and the sizeable bank of new experiences and memories that will remain visceral for quite some time.
We left New Zealand pretty exhausted and battleworn from what felt like a long, tough year. It’s nice to realise that we are ready to come back, refreshed and rejuvenated, with energy to start again, and yet we have three more months in front of us yet. Now that’s a feeling worth savouring…
Sri Lanka was the perfect starting point. We were originally going to start in India, and make our way down, but, in a stroke of genius insight, I guess, one night I suddenly had small palpitations about the thought of returning to India, tired, worn out, but fresh and green, and directly into the chaos of Kolkata. It just felt too much, too soon, and if Sri Lanka was going to be a less crazy version, then that is where it felt right to leap off from.
Sri Lanka in fact isn’t any kind of version of India at all. It’s somewhat related, true, but it is entirely unique. And boy did we love it.
In direct contrast to India, we found it one of the easiest countries to travel around. The train system is great, and we used it wherever we could. Where we couldn’t, the bus networks were vast, frequent, and easy to navigate, and everything was helped by the fact that people were, on the whole, super helpful and friendly.
We started in capital Colombo, passing a pleasant three nights as we settled into and found our new rhythms. A lot of people bypass the city, but we found it worthy of exploration. It’s also undergoing massive and rapid change, so will be fascinating to see what it becomes in the near future.
Visitors usually head for the country’s south coast beaches, and rightfully so: it’s truly glorious (and we say that as people of the Pacific). We didn’t dally about for long though, spending just enough time for a beach day and another exploring the magnificent Galle fort, before heading inland for an elephant safari. A part of us wishes we did dally longer, so maybe that will have to be reason #1 for a second trip.
But it was towards the second key selling point that we needed to head, hill country, and we spent a fabulous week passing through Ella, Nuwara Eliya and onto Kandy. We strolled around hills and lakes, rode world famous train routes, saw giant Buddhas, vistas, and tea plantations, and witnessed devotional frenzy.
And then there was our epic overnight adventure and trek to the most holy site of them all: Adam’s Peak.
Sri Lanka’s fascinating ancient capitals were up next, and in quick succession we visited the breathtaking Sigiriya, the giant Lion Rock upon which a capital was constructed, the astonishing caves at Dambulla, full of ancient sculpture and paintings, and then the ruins at Polonnaruwa, full of temples, dagobas, monasteries and more.
The first, longest-lasting and most extensive of all the ruined capitals, at Anuradhapura, was one of the final places we visited, and presented another piece in the Pearl Isle’s fascinating historical puzzle.
From ancient hearts we headed to coastal breezes, and firstly towards our only misstep, but a charming one nonetheless: Batticoloa. There we found a strange emptiness that we attributed to the devastation wreaked by the 2004 tsunami, the evidence of which still remains distinctly evident. After that, the far north coast and Jaffna provided a truly fascinating insight into an area still emerging from decades of civil war. It’s a completely different side if Sri Lanka.
Our last couple of nights were spent north of Colombo, in the tourist-oriented Negombo, but even that we found charming, to be honest, and we left Sri Lanka totally enamoured.
In 2013, we spent six weeks travelling around India’s southern tip, from Goa to Chennai. This time we started in Chennai, hustling through the bustling megatropolis in 48 hours, before moving on to another energetic city, Hyderabad, before heading all the way west to a deliciously relaxing week in Goa. Goa is India’s must-do state; in fact, the whole of India’s south remains overall our favourite part.
We then headed north to finally do steamy Mumbai properly, and we loved it, again. The astonishing caves at Ellora and Ajanta, also in Maharashtra state, saw us at our intrepid best, and were all-of-India highlights.
From there it was an unplanned leftward turn, which became a joyous introduction to the state of Gujarat. We spent time in Vadodara, Pavagadh and cool capital Ahmedabad, soaking up its intoxicating forward-hustling energy.
Next up we returned to alluring Rajasthan, starting in the extreme western expanse of Jaisalmer and the Thar desert, before taking a southern loop to see India’s biggest fort, at Chittor, and the undiscovered cool of Bundi, with its dilapidated fort, palace and myriad of stepwells.
From there, it was on to the capital, Delhi, and this time, rather than being overwhelming, she purred like a kitten. Delhi is the face of a fascinatingly changing India, I wrote.
At this point, we were onto the home stretch of our subcontinental trek, with hugely rewarding but whistle stop trips to the infamous erotic temples of Khajuraho and a return to the sacred utopia of Varanasi.
Finally, just before returning to another of our favourite cities, Kolkata, we spent a most fascinating week exploring the hills of West Bengal, the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, and the feeling of having left India for Asia while still being in India. It proved another trip highlight, simply because it was so unexpected.
And that, friends, brings us up to date, although, for a little culinary inspiration, there’s always my take on India’s gastronomic wonderland to read as well: part one and part two
Onto the second half: Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Hong Kong. It ain’t over yet…
When last checked in on all matters culinary, we were at the end of our stay in the charming state of Gujarat. Needing to fill in quite a few hours on our last day, without getting sweaty (as we’d already checked out of our hotel), we spent an afternoon/evening in aircon heaven at the mall, eating ‘mall food’. You’d think it a heinous proposition, but nup: even food-court food in India is more than palatable. Even better, as we were at Ahmedabad’s biggest mall, it was pretty flash.
We started off local, with a pav bhaji off, buying Mumbai’s famous street-food staple from two competing eateries and then putting them through the rigours of in-depth analysis. Or we just ate them and threw shade at the loser. We then whiled away a couple of hours at a schmancy cafe, which truly delivered, with the best coffee I had in all of India (so good, I had to have two). Finishing up with a post-movie Maccas feed might seem a little declasse, but the chicken McSpicy McBody-slammed any of the tripe Ronald’s serving up at home, to be honest: spicy, succulent, fresh.
From there, it was off to ravishing Rajasthan. I have to say, magnificent forts and deserts and palaces (oh my) aside, the food didn’t quite ignite the superlative searching on thesaurus.com; however, this may have been more a mixture of illness (flu, what?), tiredness, plus the fact that the state is heavy on the tourist traps.
In Jaisalmer, the one true Insta-worthy meal went unphotographed due to fading light. It was at a stunning rooftop haveli restaurant, and was a real vege feast: a gorgeous, rich and creamy baigan (eggplant) bhaji; another new dal to add to the list, dhora dal, which has a wonderfully fragrant, roasted coriander seed flavour; and something completely new: Rajasthani gatta, dense, chickpea flour sausages, cut into chunks, and cooked in a spicy yoghurt and tomato gravy. Wow.
Otherwise, we mostly ate on the roof of our guesthouse; partly convenience, partly for the fort views, partly because the host was a real kool kat. It was also great for big pots of chai tea and milk coffee, which seemed to stretch forever in the small little chai cups favoured here. Bliss.
The hit-and-miss continued through our other two Rajasthan stops. I mentioned elsewhere how much we found the city of Chittorgarh a strange and unwelcoming place, so, yeah, we were more than happy with a couple of completely acceptable vege thalis!
Bundi, pretty Bundi, sadly derelict when it came to memorable eating, apart from one exceptional exception. Our guide’s sister ran a home kitchen from which she prepared fresh thalis for visitors that charismatic Jay had managed to convince they needed to try (but of course).
They were very expensive compared to all other thalis we ate, by some distance, including the epic Gujarati thalis I spoke about last time, but it’s pretty hard to beat freshly cooked curries and puris (gorgeous little puffy roti-type fried breads). She also made the most amazing tomato-chilli chutney that had us licking the bowl (it was oily so you know it was good!) . That stuff could be bottled and become the India’s version of Lao Gan Ma, seriously!
Delhi saw the dreaded illness return, and me either not hungry at all (say whut?) or needing/craving blandness (double whut?). The upshot, though, was that I finally got a good helping of luscious, organic peanut butter on suitably dense brown bread. Heaven!
Before the illness descended, there were two other great food memories. Randomly, we stumbled upon a Parsi restaurant that was very old school glamour. What was not old school, though, was the baby eggplants stuffed with coconut and peanut powder and served in a herbaceous spiky green gravy. Exceptional.
We also returned to the hipster enclave of Haus Kass, and a particularly memorable South Indian dosa. It was still as good as the first time around, and as a free gift with purchase, as we were eating early, we got to witness the maitre D perform his puja (prayer) for, I’m guessing, a profitable and successful night’s trade.
Onto Khajuraho, which, like Bundi, was pretty devoid of tourists. With food options a bit limited, we stuck to fairly mainstream tourist fare bar one memorable wander into a small local Jain place. I felt like eggplant, the owner recommended baigan nizami and told me to trust him, and I’m glad I did. A fried whole eggplant, split down the middle, and smothered in a richly spicy almost pastelike sauce arrived. It was duly mopped up with garlic naan.
I do also have to confess that I had been craving a proper beef burger for quite some time, and while Westerning it up, I had a lamb burger that really Hit. The. Spot. #dontjudgeme
Varanasi, and again more continental fare: eggs and more peanut butter and brown bread. Our one night meal was spent at an NGO where the Indian/French husband and wife owners appeared to be in the middle of a marriage breakdown. The tension clearly got into the food. Sad buzz.
At least, though, we did get back to the world-famous Blue Lassi shop, to pray at the altar of lassi. We tried a trio of orgasmic delights: pomegranate, coconut and chocolate, banana, coconut and chocolate, and saffron and dried fruit and nut. All were super stuffed with fillings, lusciously rich, and just glorious.
West Bengal’s Hill Country, and the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, represented a dramatic shift. For the first time in three months we were cold, for multiple days in a row. It was equivalent to the middle of a New Zealand winter, with a cracking storm to go with it. So, we did what any humans would do in such a sudden and shocking climatic change: we carbed it up.
In Kalimpong, we momo’d ourselves into a frenzy, unable to restrain our desire for Tibetan dumplings any longer. We had them beef, we had them pork, we had them any way the lovely people wanted to give them to us. But it wasn’t all carbrageous sinning. There was the strange case of finding another example of Keralan chicken curry, which now has me convinced it is the source of Indo-Fijian chicken curry, and a pretty decent thali (served without breads!).
In Darjeeling, though, the carbfest reached its zenith. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that our guesthouse served us bolstering but gargantuan breakfasts every morning, including local Nepali cuisine that had us saying, where we do we sign up?
The first night we went to a famous colonial era place, Glenary’s; the kind where elites of yesteryear would come to hob their knobs. Now it’s international tourists and classy domestics who come to knob it up amongst period wood panelling. Perusing the menu, I saw the words baked macaroni cheese and I didn’t have to be told twice. The chinese-style fried rice and chilli chicken was also pretty magnificent.
Beyond that, it was a lot of eggs and cumin hash browns with chunky wholemeal toast, and a most amazing beef burger that tasted like the very best of homemade food. I hate to admit it, but it was all comfortingly sublime, despite the new layer on insulation I could feel growing around my middle. Eek.
But there was local too, with a rather magnificent experience at a wee family-owned place, where we were served a feast of momos and two types of Tibetan noodle soups, gyathuk and bhagthuk. Again, where do we sign up?
Our India odyssey came to an end in Kolkata, but was unfortunately again marred by the return of dreaded lurgies, which pretty much had me holed up in our hostel for the last three days. So disappointing.
It didn’t, however – and nothing would – stop me from living it up with Kolkata’s gift to the street food world: Kati rolls, a layered paratha bread, coated on one side in fried egg and then wrapped around usually mutton curry, chutney and red onions. So utterly sublime, and genius in its simplicity.
We also felt the need for one last Biryani…and we chose well. The mutton was so soft it put up no fight to stay attached to its bones, and each grain of rice felt lovingly hugged by its subtly spiced cooking broth. We also added another new dish to the repertoire: vege banjara.
Banjara means cooked in the style of gypsies, which basically means that the dry spices that make the masala are more coarsely ground, it’s easy to make with ingredients to hand, and it generously wallows in plenty of ghee. It’s also got a pretty fierce chilli bite. Excellent.
Finally, for our last meal, it seemed fitting to go out with a bang, in a place called Oh! Calcutta. Our vege choices were for the memory books: okra cooked in mustard oil and served in a gravy of mango and caramelised red onion; baby potatoes in a creamy, tomatoey curry; and banana flower cooked in coconut and warming spices (cardamon, cinnamon, etc.). The paratha alongside was golden, crispy and layered to perfection.
Oh India, delicious, delicious India, how I’m missing you already…
Kolkata, for centuries the capital of British India and lumbered with the cruel ‘black hole’ tag, is one of our favourite Indian cities. Like others we really enjoyed – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore – it has size, scale, history, chaos, and plenty to see and experience. But it also has that somewhat hard to define special quality; an energy, a vibe, which casts its unique spell and draws you into its web. And thus begins a love affair with Bengal state’s independently-spirited capital…
Kolkata was the final stop on our India odyssey this time around. Just like last time, when Mumbai was the end point, it is hard to maintain the go-go-go, as we call it, in those final days, when you know a lengthy chapter is coming to a close. Further, the dreaded lurgy I’d been battling on and off for weeks decided to make a valiant last stand.
The result, unfortunately, is that I spent the majority of our three days inside our hostel; hardly the best way to enjoy a huge city. So, this is more like a retrospective shout out to the glamorous old dame, because if there’s one thing I did get from my limited interaction this time around, it’s that she’s lost none of her allure.
Kolkata has an interesting history that, I think anyway, explains much about its contemporary setting. Before the Brits showed up, from 1690, Kalikata was a rural settlement amidst jungle and swamp. Aside from the hugely significant temple dedicated to the goddess Kali (still standing today), there was little else. The Empire did not sack and colonise an existing ancient city, but built its grand mini-London from the ground up.
Further along, in the late-19th century, a huge cultural renaissance took place among the emergent educated Bengali middle classes, and the desire for an independent India, free from the shackles of Empire, began to ferment.
This movement was galvanised by a British misstep in 1905, when they partitioned the state of Bengal in two. They were forced to backtrack six years later, but the damage was done, and the Brits moved the capital of colonial India to the ‘less troublesome’ New Delhi as a result.
Post-independence, Kolkata suffered immeasurably, as it was forced to absorb massive waves of Hindu refugees escaping East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Approximately four million arrived following partition in 1948, with the second wave arriving in the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
These influxes created the slums and massive outbreaks of disease and starvation, which created the enduring imagery that the city is still so closely associated with. Adding to the pain, the city’s port-led economy suffered with the loss of most of its hinterland falling behind the closed doors of East Pakistan.
This history has created a politically-active population. The city has certainly seen its share of civil unrest in the past fifty of so years, as its economy tried to adapt to these significant shifts and disruptions. From 1970 until 2011, state politics was dominated by leftist, mostly outwardly Marxist parties, and protests and civil movements were a fairly common feature during these turbulent years. In Kolkata, citizens having an active voice and using it loudly is part of its fabric.
So the upshot of Kolkata is that it is home to a politically-engaged, fiercely-independent, and socially-progressive citizenry (in relative terms), living in undoubtedly India’s most stunning colonial-era city. Like elsewhere, though, the winds of more recent development are also blowing through, creating a fascinating landscape-in-flux.
No other major city in India – aside from maybe Mumbai – provides such a delicious walking environment. There are the grand monuments and buildings, such as the Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s cathedral and numerous other examples. But then there is also simply walking around areas like BBD Bagh, taking in the historical feast as you look upwards while navigating the chaos at street level, where hundreds of years of growth have crowded what we’re once no doubt spacious old boulevards. There are remnants of many old churches to be found here, illustrating the sheer variety of places from where traders came to ply their wares.
Add to this the frenetic markets in and around New Market, a veritable wonderland of bazaars, a wander around the old Chinatown (little of China remains, but it remains a fascinating area to explore), and the people-watching Mecca of the Maiden and riverfront parks alongside the iconic Howrah Bridge, and you can easily see days just melt away, and you still haven’t left the central city!
As well as its revolutionary heritage, Kolkata is highly regarded as a centre for arts and culture; its pedigree across multiple artforms is impressive. From literature, to music and dance, theatre and especially the Bengali School of Art that arose in the mid-19th century, the city is well known for its ‘furious creative energy’. We enjoyed visiting several institutions, like the Academy of Fine Arts, but there are a whole bunch around South City that will just have to wait for visit #3!
Kolkata’s creative energy extends into the cuisine, which is famous and distinctive in its own right: an emphasis on fish, mustard oil as a key frying medium, spicy dishes, and a love of sweets are key characteristics. Bengalis love to eat, and are famous for being particular and finicky about their food: certain foods for certain occasions, dishes served in particular orders, and so on.
Part of me loves this, the idea of creating elaborate rituals that draw focus to the process of eating. On the other hand, I’m just as easily drawn to a much more casual approach to food. Mood-dependant, I guess.
There are a number of dining institutions around the city that combine this love of eating with strong ties to a colonial past. Places like Peter Cat and Flury’s have been serving up their respective specialties for generations, and while I would most certainly be lying if I proclaimed them eating India highlights, they undoubtedly have a certain nostalgic place in people’s hearts, evidently for both locals and returning tourists, and are glimpses into rapidly receding eras.
On our first visit to Kolkata, we felt that residents, on the whole, gave an aura of being quite progressive by comparison to the rest of much more conservative India. It’s hard (even impossible) to quantify the truth of this, or not, but this observation was made primarily on the basis of two noticeable differences.
The first was the mere presence of women in everyday life, in far greater numbers than we’d seen elsewhere (up to that point). They were on the streets, taking lunch with their male colleagues, shopping, socialising, and were far more visually and vocally present than we were in general used to seeing (this was six years ago).
The second was more funny. All over India, walking through parks and temples complexes, we’d quite often spot young couples who, given the country’s social conservatism, were having to find secret and hidden corners to have private moments. It was like something out of an old Bollywood film, and it became something of a game to spot the deer-like glimpses.
Not so in Kolkata, where couples were cavorting much more openly, with no-one around seeming to be worried about the moral decline of the population. It wasn’t gross, but it was noticeable.
Other smaller observations added to this: young people dressed a little more daringly, wearing makeup and with hairstyles that again sometimes just seemed to be pushing the boundaries a little more. And lots of people smoking, including young women. A heinous habit for sure, but a behaviour that was again something quite noticeably different than other cities.
On this visit, our observations were supported by our roommate, a young Bangalorean on sabbatical. Getting ready to go out on the Saturday night, without prodding, he randomly commented that women in Kolkata are the most beautifully made up in India, but are hard to get close to; they aren’t easily impressed by the usual antics of men. Funnily enough, earlier that day I had been thinking to myself that you might say that women here are like the Romans of India, in how well dressed they often are.
It gives the impression that young women here are taught to be strong and independent, and to be proudly so; that the (still) usual notion of woman dowried to men, implying inferiority, is being rejected. And it leaves me to wonder if such a simple reason as gender politics helps to explain Kolkata’s unique culture?
India is a country where the role of women and gender-based violence (still) can leave you completely dumbfounded, aghast. You hear about things that seem completely unimaginable in a modern democracy.
Yet there are highly-educated pockets in many places across India.
So is it that Kolkata’s long history of valuing education, the arts, and political activism, and of doing so in a much more female-inclusive way, created a society that stands apart? Does the mere presence of women in public life create differences that ripples out into wider society and culture in profound and unimaginable ways? Should we be taking note?
In an era where this issue is ever increasingly being brought to the fore, and where it feels like democracies are so desperate for something new, something different than the bully boys who’ve been ruling the world since forever, it might just be enough to inspire hope. It may be a fool’s hope indeed, but I’d argue that all hope is a form of that, anyway.
I contemplated this as we caught our Uber to the overly-spacious, future-proofed airport.
Once out of that frenetic central concentration of energy, you hit the suburbs, where life is perhaps more mundane, a bit more conservative. However, racing through, along the elevated series of new flyovers, signs of that new change flooding into India are popping up all over.
Like nowhere else I’ve seen, India truly continues to live its past as it races at breakneck speed into its future. On the whole, the place has changed immeasurably in the six years between visits, and a lot of amazing progress has been made. Let’s hope it continues to manage the journey to come in a way that captures the best of where it’s come from, and for the benefit of all its many varied peoples.