“Well… This is Different…….”
It started as an idea after drinks but now our intrepid duo have jetted to the far flung East for four months – starting with Myanmar….
Article by Victoria Kerly and Matthew Banks
As with all unrealistic plans, this started life as a post-Friday night drinks tube conversation. It was a red or blue pill moment. Normally it’s blue – blue is safe, blue is what you know. Whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, this time – for the first time – the red pill was taken. This red pill represented going away with someone for four months, someone that you’d only known for four months… It meant rendering one of us homeless, and the other to stop breathing, sorry, working for the first time in a decade. Naturally there was to be a long planning period before leaving… umm six weeks? Before we knew it, somehow (don’t ask), diaries were cleared and tickets were booked. There was only the small task (!) of getting through Christmas, emptying a home and packing a bag.
Matthew: Having never travelled, this was a new experience for me. I’ve always wanted to but for one reason or another, it has never been possible. I’ve been fortunate to have travelled through family holidays or work, but never seriously for four months straight. To be honest, the ‘magnitude’ of the trip didn’t and still hasn’t hit me. Friends and family, I think, were concerned that I was underestimating what I was letting myself in for. Packing was done the morning of the flight, I was fairly cutthroat and I was packed on my first attempt, eagerly awaiting take-off.
Victoria: I’m sure it came as no surprise to those around me that I was off on another adventure. The biggest part was the pre-trip practicalities. Packing up what had been meant to be a temporary home proved to be a far more monumental task than my timings, or my patience, had anticipated. To be fair, I did only allow myself three days – which again will come as no surprise to family and friends… But with the repeated chorus line of encouragement, “only three more days”, “only two more days”, I got everything done and myself to the airport.
First stop, a layover in Bangkok. For those less seasoned travellers amomgst you, there are actually two major airports there. We landed in one, our flight the following morning from the other. Having made the two-hour bus journey across the city after our long haul flight, we checked into the (second) airport hotel… Only to discover we’d (or more accurately, Victoria) left a cash card in the first airport ATM. Cue mad dash across the city and pleading eyes to recover said card, and avoid travel catastrophe number one within mere hours of arrival. Possibly due to relief, or more probably due to overexcitement of getting started, we headed to the Khao San Road to provide Matthew with his first experience of a traveller environment. This over-exuberance saw us leave at 3am with a 5am check-in to get to Yangon.
Yangon domestic terminal is a sight to behold, picture a decrepit cowshed, with men spitting red juice on the floor and you might come close. After being ushered around various pop-up stalls we were given two stickers to wear, denoting which plane we would be pointed toward. No boarding cards just a sticker with a picture of a plane with a smiley face. Here we also experienced our first taste of Myanmar cuisine, in a place voted Restaurant Newcomer of the Year Award 2015, ‘Coffee and Toast’. We ended up with some Nescafe and fried bread with a slice of cheese and some weird honey jam. This has been the highlight of our culinary experience (avocado salad addiction aside).
In all our lack of planning, one thing was clear, we thought our first holiday together should come at the beginning of our trip, to unwind before the real travels began.
Ngapali – a beautiful beach, a quiet area with restaurants on the sand and plentiful sundowner beers – the only real dilemma was flip flops or no flip flops. After six days of sun, sand and barbecued seafood, also not forgetting Victoria’s (much disputed) runaway lead on the league board of card playing, we were ready to explore Myanmar further.
Back to Yangon, another sticker later and we were wandering around an entirely more fraught environment by comparison. A vibrant city with constant background noise of traffic, horns and street selling (not forgetting the hawking). The pavements are filled with street vendors and people eating as the world passes them by. You always know you are far from home when the smells are alien, and here they added to the hot, sticky soup that is Yangon.
Here started our education on Myanmar Pagodas. Far and above the most impressive was Schwedagon Pagoda (this is just calling out to be said a la Sean Connery). How could it not be, a monumental solid gold structure that can be seen from most viewpoints in the city. Sunset is recommended; the way the main Stupa seemingly becomes ablaze is interesting, if slightly anti-climatic. Must-sees: Schwedagon Pagoda, China Town and Bogyoke market. Overall, Yangon was a cultural education but we were not sad to leave after three days.
Next stop, Bagan. Home to one of the iconic images of Myanmar – hot air balloons over the temples. We took full advantage of a previous ‘traveller chat’, having unearthed the name of a balloon pilot. Someone we’d never met who managed to arrange a sunrise flight for the morning after our arrival. Balloons Over Bagan gave us the most perfect first view of the 3,000 (plus) temples dotted across the horizon. All topped off with a champagne breakfast – perfect.
We jumped on an E-Bike (electric scooter to you and me), saw the main temples but generally made it our mission to get lost. In which we were very successful. Driving a scooter on sand, in the dark, with no lights and a slightly scared-y cat passenger left us giggling after an unforgettable day. Must-dos: Finding empty temples to climb and soak up the consistently magical views, getting around on E-Bike and Balloon, Balloon, Balloon!
On to the first real bus journey of the trip made all the more uncomfortable with Matthew’s 6’2” frame. After seven hours of winding mountain roads we arrived in Kalaw; a starting point for a three-day trek through countryside, up mountains and alongside waterfalls, which has undoubtedly been a true highlight so far. Our group consisted of a slightly mad and ever adventurous guide, three girls from Corsica and a Spanish pair. An odd bunch thrown together, but we laughed from beginning to end.
After the first day of mountains and children shyly saying “Hello” (“Mingalabar!”) we arrived at the first village, our home for the night a bamboo house on stilts. Seven mattresses on the floor and a group hope that nobody snored.
The scenery was amazing, what with the occasional buffalo joining in when both walking or swimming in the river meant the total 50 miles passed incredibly quickly. Our second home was a local monastery and after a game of football with the inhabitant monks, we settled in for our evening meal. The evening came to a typically amusing end when our guide asked us to quieten down as the village people (French girls performing the YMCA) would worry our laughter meant people would try to steal their children’s giblets (nope… we’re not sure either!). Cue fit of giggles number 427 whilst trying to get to sleep on the floor of the main hall.
We finally arrived at Inle Lake, soon to be renamed “Inle Lost”, to be transported to our hotel by speed canoe. We’d decided to treat ourselves to a room on stilts. The veranda overlooked the lake and we spent the rest of the day enjoying a hot shower and gazing at the view eagerly anticipating our trip to the hot springs.
These springs would have been ideal but for us managing to make the 30 minute walk last two and a half hours, see ref to “Inle Lost”…. Also, ironically, this led to the first blister. Eventually muscles were soothed and full recovery made.
The obvious must do here is a boat trip on the lake. We hired a boat and driver for the day to take us around the various sights. Very enjoyable. We also managed to fit in a visit to The Red Mountain Vineyard (much to Victoria’s delight). The view was lovely, but we doubt the wine will threaten awards ceremonies anytime soon.
So… here we write, sitting on a rooftop overlooking the sun setting on the Ayarwaddy River. We are now in Mandalay, our last stop in this beautiful country. It’s fair to say Myanmar has left its mark, surpassing all expectations.