Sitting in a tea house in a Burmese mountain town at 3am after a 9 hour bus ride, sipping tea sweetened with condensed milk, my bag of possessions at my feet including dinner of processed cheese slices, idly thinking that I’d probably start a 3-day hike that day once it was light to find a guide, I realized that I might have got the hang of this traveling thing. I certainly smelt like I had.
But back to India. I could write many, many emails simply on those 3 weeks. Keelin wrote at least a books-worth in her journal; much more diligent than me. We went through a bus journey into the mountains to Joshimeth which all other journeys in my life shall now be compared to: 11 1/2 hours of turns and a vertical drop with no barrier, a driver like the lead greyhound in a race determined nothing would be in front or faster than him, getting left behind and running across a town bridge after our one toilet stop, looking back and seeing parts of the road recently rebuilt over massive land-slides (and seeing the smoke from other slides on the other side of the river valley), sitting by the usual over-friendly locals… I laugh at every other journey that people tell me is “horrible”.
All that was so we could spend 5 days hiking up to Kauri Pass (“Doorway To Heaven”), just shy of 4000m. Despite the food poisoning which meant we didn’t take full advantage of the tasty food our camp cook provided, the trek provided the best memories of India. We were in a group with our German friend we met in Delhi and 3 Indians, led by Neil from Mumbai. The Indian guys were amazed that girls hiked so we set out to deconstruct some gender stereotypes; Keelin was nicknamed Mrs Bear Grylls by the end (the best quote being when Arnish found out she had also been a jockey “I will surely now kiss your feet!” shouted down the mountain). We swopped stories over the campfire at night while watching stars and, by day, watched more and more of 6000m peaks appear around us until we were surrounded by giants. The highest was Nanda Devi, India’s highest mountain at 7000m or so. Our guide let us continue further than the others to reach 4000m and gaze in wonder at all around us. Thank you Nathan for the training on the AT this summer that meant 4 days without showering, washing hair or changing clothes was a breeze.
Our new Indian friends, having been achingly slow in the mountains, showed their natural habitat when we got back to the city of Haridwar, a city in full swing of a 4-yearly festival. They spent 30 minutes and 3 separate ticket counters devising a scheme to get us almost 1000km to Madhya Pradesh: a scheme involving either smiling nicely at a conductor or us sharing a bunk with one of them all the way to Delhi. I needed some recovery after that but that was provided by dhosas, lassi and a trip to the Har-ki-Pairi ghat, the scene of crowds of devotees earlier in the day. They had come to dip in the Ganga and be absolved of all sins.
A marathon journey of 3 days got us to Tala. We met Neelam Verma, a lady who ran an arts shops in the village and gives you real coffee. She drives around the country on her own, collecting local craft works to sell in her amazing shop. We had two trips to hunt tigers in Bhandhavgarh National Park: I couldn’t get used to seeing peacocks in the wild. The evening sun on dried yellow-brown bamboo was beautiful but the tigers remained elusive, probably hiding from the overladen jeeps full of Indian families, chatting and munching on crisps as they watched the water hole.
Our over-friendly host made us chicken curry and found me a beer on our last night; all had to be consumed outside by a fire to save offending others in the restaurant less keen on meat and alcohol. He also arranged transport for us to Kharjaraho but came with us, opening the car door to spit every few minutes along the 4 hour drive. Kharjaraho was the beginning of our cultural tour, seeing the instructive carvings on the temples, before moving to Agra and the Taj. We tried to see the Taj hidden in morning mist and enjoyed the fort with its incomprehensible English signs. We ended that day having cocktail sundowners at the fanciest hotel in town with a Californian father-and-son traveling team we’d met in Delhi, gazing at the Taj behind the traditional dancer on the veranda.
We felt that we had the hang of India but it played one more trick on us, our train to Delhi being two hours late due to fog and no-one able to tell us whether we had missed it or whether it was yet to come! From an expected arrival of 7pm, we arrived after 10pm and Keelin rushed to the airport metro with a hug rather than the goodbye dinner we’d planned. Bye bye Keelin, thank you so much for joining me because I couldn’t have done India without you, sorry for the times I stressed out at people!
I had a glazed look on my face transiting through Bangkok Airport, overwhelmed by the number of foreigners, the availability of pork products and alcohol, Coldstone ice-cream, and the acceptability of showing off my shoulders.
Myanmar didn’t start well because none of my cards would work meaning money was a serious issue. Thanks to local Zaw, a friend of a sister of a friend (thanks, the Muuuuuurrrs), we sorted out the money problem and had a lovely day sight-seeing Yangoon and talking about politics more openly than I though would be possible. People were helpful, they smiled not stared, the smells were less, the buses had blankets and toothbrushes, traffic obeyed traffic laws. I was without a guidebook so everything I saw and learnt was a wonder. The new government came into power while I was there; no signs of chaos or violence on the streets but no celebrations either. It’s an odd mixture of developed and traditional: like the men walking with mobile phone pouches attached to their longhi (long skirt worn by men and women alike). All you meet are chewing betel nut, a mild narcotic that stains saliva and teeth red, turning people into vampires and rotting gums.
At that tea shop at 3am, I met an Argentinian, a Chilean, a HongKongese (?) and a Swiss so this little team spent a happy 3 days walking to Inle Lake with two local Pa-O girl guides. The lake itself is wonderful picture-perfect villages on stilts in the water, tomatoes growing on vines with farmers tending them on boats, and fishermen pirouetting with paddles and cages to catch fish. I went horse-riding, discovering the Htat En Cave where monks go for deep mediation (even Google doesn’t know much about this place), and drank terrible wine at the vineyard at sunset.
The next two stops in Myanmar were Mandalay and Bagan: both lived up to expectations. Mandalay has the ancient city of Inwa just outside of town: we explored by motorbike, then saw the U-Bein bridge (a long, pretty bridge made out of teak) before making friends with half the village by the bridge. They make silk there: the men pound it in huge buckets by their feet before dyeing it with the colour running off to stain the drains, hang it out to dry on bamboo poles, then the women spin it on foot-pedal looms and hand-paint designs on to it. The children posed for photos and were delighted by a gift of tissues. I went on an overnight trip to Pwin Oo Lwin, a hill station with the national botanical gardens set out like Kew. I hiked to Aneshakhan Falls where a little girl showed me the way to climb to the side of the waterfalls to swim in a pool at the top.
A cruise down the Irrawaddy brought me to Bagan: essentially a playground made for me. I got to cycle around all day and see historical temples everywhere! There are hundreds of pagodas dotted around the hills and you simply cycle and explore as many as you can in a day before watching sunset from the top of your favorite one. Even with bus loads of tourists at the main sites, I found myself on my own on unknown trails to ruined red temples hidden in thorns. I took a trip to see Mt Popa, a monastery on top of a volcanic plug where 37 nats (animalistic spirits) live. It’s essentially the Burmese Olympus.
So, in conclusion, go to Myanmar now before everyone else starts going and the people and country lose their wonderful open nature and the country turns into Lesser Thailand. I met so many other lovely travelers and had many interesting conversations.
Thailand is a contrast: so many tourists, so many western things! I met up with some friends from Zambia who are also traveling around the world in Bangkok, saw lots more temples at Ayutthaya and Suikhothai, ate pizza in celebration on my first night, and am now happily staying with Aunty Heather: laundry and haircut and cereal happiness! Today, I went into her school and told her class all about exploring the world. They were most excited to see my head-torch and Steripen and to try on the big backpack. Their excitement has made me excited for all still to come.