Sunday, 31 January 2016

Bagan & Mandalay 26-30/1/2016

The bus trip to Bagan started at 8pm, finished at 3:30am and was very mush a similar experience as the trip 2 nights before, except bumpier. We had to wait around for a few hours in the cold morning air (around 8 degrees) for a while until we were able to get into our room, after which I was able to go about thawing out again, drink some coffee, shower and sleep for a bit. Over night buses really are a chore.

After resting for a couple of hours we enquired about getting a taxi back to New Bagan which lay 10-15 minutes away from our hotel. The lady on reception suggested instead that maybe an electric scooter might be an option and after a quick loop of the carpark to get used to the controls, Vicky jumped on the back and we headed out to grab a bit of lunch, scope out the scenery and decide on where we would come back to tomorrow for our one proper day in the area. 5 minutes later we reached the end of the hotel drive. It was bigger than the one on Southfork ranch

There's not really much to see in New Bagan, The roads are a mixture of tarmac and dirt tracks, with the dirt tracks falling into subcategories of "firm but bumpy" right through to "sandpit." via "WTF?" There is no way to differentiate these surfaces from the map, it's just a case of exploring what you can, however you can and all times hoping to keep the bike upright. The central market there was shut and the restaurants we passed in general did not seem overly appealing, so after a quick bite to eat in which must have been the most expensive eatery in town, we headed off to do a loop of Old Bagan, stopping for Coffee and Pancakes a short time after in a restaurant that inspired more confidence. Impressed by the overall cleanliness of the interior, the friendliness of the staff as well as the menu and appearance of the food that was coming out of the kitchen area, I marked it on the map as a place to come back to the day after.

"Weather Spoons" had a familiar ring to it too.

We were told before we left the hotel that the battery on the bikes should be good for 8 hours or more, but heading back after 4 the bike was struggling to get up the hills. By the time we reached our hotel we had had to dismount a couple of times to help the thing up the last of them but were still riding the flats ok. It wasn't a big problem, but it confirmed in my mind that as we were heading out for the full day the following morning, and the battery was obviously struggling to power the weight of 2 people for half of that time, 2 bikes would be the only option if we wanted to avoid a long evening walk.

It probably hadn't helped that at some point during the day I had managed to knock the headlight switch on also, but I overlooked that detail for the sake of just playing it safe.

The next day we were kicked out of room by the cleaners at 10:30am, hanging back a bit in order to hopefully have enough juice left in the scooters at the end of the day to allow us to catch the sun dipping at just before 6pm. When we left at 11am  I had the feeling it was going to be a close run thing.

Nursing the throttle gently as I could, by the time we reached New Bagan that 10-15 minutes away, I was already showing as having eaten through nearly a quarter of my battery, with 3 bars shown on full throttle, and the 4 full bars shown when I came off it a bit. I was going to have to go a little more gently.

At the first temple we stopped at,  a quick walk around the outside followed by a couple more that lay in close proximity were all we needed to get the urge to move on a bit more. A quick scoot up the road lay another one with hopefully better views, so we pulled over here to take a quick look around.

Whilst I was quite happily looking around the outside, Vicky had made contact with one of the people employed to look after the various structures, and was busy being buttered up ready for a later sales pitch, being allowed to climb to the top of the structure to look at the  scenic views below, and before too long I had been beckoned to go up and join them..

Despite the temples being in a crumbling state, it's still expected for you to remove your shoes before you enter it. This causes something of a dilemma for me as being a diabetic, it is ground into me how important it is for me to look after my feet, especially in relation to getting any nicks or cuts on them which may lead to an infection, in turn leading to (in a worst case scenario) amputation partly due to the diabetics decreased immune system. I already have a reduced sense of feeling in some of the areas of my feet caused be this condition, as well as eyesight that I could maybe class as a little problematic, and these things combined mean that occasionally I need to trend carefully if I can, or not tred at all. if I can't. Hell my specialists back in the UK has a headfit if I ever tell them that i don't wear slippers around the house. I daren't tell them also that I don't really have the sherlock holmes pipe or velvet lined smoking jacket that one would need to accompany them. It just wouldn't do.

Sensing my hesitancy to step forward one of the people looking after the site in question looked down at my feet. "Socks OK", they said.
"OK" I repeated back questioningly, pointing down at my feet.
I had asked this question a few times over the couple of weeks beforehand. The usual answer is socks are allowed, rarely they are not and on such occasions I then need to decide whether the venue is worth the risk. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was one where socks were not permitted, but the floor there was spotlessly clean and smooth, The site maintained to an impeccable standard so the risk there wasn't so large. The Jumping Cat monastery likewise, clean, smooth, impeccable, so I could place the risk as "Low". Here the building was a crumbling mess, outside on bare stone with dirt and rubble a plenty. This was not a place I would have been happy walking without a little protection to my sole, and if the answer coming back would have been different, I wouldn't have thought twice about not setting another foot forward.

"Yes, it's OK" she repeated, waving me forward over the exterior threshold, I was then guided around the side and up some narrow steps to view what I had been called up for. A dry, arid landscape with vegetation in places and more temples and structures with a back drop of a estuary and hills, it had been worth the climb indeed and as we left there a little while after, the young man who had just sold Vicky a painting and was now her husband, told here that it was also the best place to see the sunset of Bagan. We decided we would try to head back there if time and battery allowed.

After a quick stop or 2 at a couple more temples, with paintings, postcards, money collectors and wasps all bringing different levels of annoyances, we sat down and treated ourselves to a burger and chips at Weather Spoons, and this at least didn't disappoint. 2 burgers, 4 cans of soda and a complimentary bowl of fruit later, we re-mounted the bikes for the late afternoon stint, first heading for a viewing tower that we had spotted before lunch so that we would hopefully be to climb it and see some of the 4000 temples of Bagan, in one majestic view of the plains.

After battling through the worst "Roads" so far, pushing the bikes through sand pits and cutting myself on brambles, the tower as it turns out, maybe predictably was shut, and after losing so much time in getting to that point it was now going to be a close to whether we could make it back to the earlier viewpoint for sun down.

Back onto tarmac we opened up the throttles against the fading, mist filled air that was consuming the country around us. It was either mist or dust it was hard to tell, but the effect on the light coming through the trees was much that same, stunning. With my bike battery now showing 1 bar I was nursing it the best I could, trying to get the balance right between speed and efficiency, to catch the view and still have enough power left for the journey that still lay after in the dark, so I also needed lights. We made the temple just before last light, and as the sun crept down over the darkened vista, I managed to capture a few shots for prosperty, for the memory, for the moment.

I wish I hadn't have bothered.

"What are you doing in here?", "Why have you got socks on?", "Take them off immediately" came barking at me from the right.
a fat fellow, rich and privileged unlike the majority of the burmese people who had been nothing but pleasant during the rest of my duration was barking angrily from my right, I tried to reply but was cut off promptly.
"This is the worst insult you can give!! Take your socks off, take your socks off now" he carried on, force 7 on the aggressive scale.
"If he thinks thats the worst insult I can give" I thought, "He obviously doesn't know me".
Still, I would be lying if this didn't catch me a little off balance, so rather than firing in I decided to act courteously, offering up an explanation on how I had been told how it was allowed, a little bit about diabetes which I'm pretty sure his nonsensical brain was completely able to process, It didn't work. This wasn't a man used to 2 way dialogue, or certainly not one used to seeing anothers point of view,

"Who told you? who told you this, where are you from?" he carried on, now registering 9 on the aggressive scale. Personally I was just amazed he had managed to go this long without eating something. Probably why he was getting grumpy.

"Where am I from?", "England" I said, looking him straight in his wonky eyes, trying not to stare too much at his face adorned with the signs of low I.Q incase I started to feel sorry for him, I didn't and I didn't.
"England?" He repeated, then he stopped. For some reason that took him back a little, and I still haven't worked out why. At this point he walked off muttering something in Burmese, and the lady who had told me earlier that socks were ok came over and locked him into discussion. I took this as my queue to leave, but before I left several people came up to me and discussed their shock at the mans actions and overalll aggressive nature, with another young girl who had been present at the temple earlier coming over to make sure everything was ok with the bikes, a sort of "Just checking" gesture which was simple but appreciated.

It's a shame though really, it only takes one person to spoil a party. And for a change that person wasn't me. Absolutely gutted.

As we started on out way back onto the tarmac heading for the hotel, we passed the rich guy, led against his parked up expensive car, speaking aggressively to seemingly not wealthy enough friend no doubt criticising the bloody foreigner who refused to take off his socks and risk his health. I've come into this journey with a live and let live attitude, believe what you like, and as long as it isn't affecting anyone else, then live how you want to live. I feel this is now starting to change. you see, without science or man I would have been born still 42 years ago, without science or man I would probably have died of diabetes or related illnesses in the last 27 years, without science or man, I doubt I would still be able to walk on the leg that I fractured into 5 pieces at 25, or would be able to see anything at all if it wasn't for the numerous operations that have been preformed on me in order to save my eyesight. This last point has probably been the driving point of my desire to travel over the last few years, to be able to see as much as I can, while I still can. And for this I have man to thank, not any god. And so, whilst not willing or actively looking to cause offence to any colour, creed, race or religion in particular, if i do manage to unwittingly offend you at any point in the future, then perhaps, just perhaps, your deserve to be offended. All I ask is that you try looking at things from an alternative viewpoint from the one that you are currently fixed, maybe with the benefit of current information as a basis.

By the time we reached the entrance to hotel, my battery was nearly exhausted, but my steed had carried me home, albeit it limply, and as I dismounted her for the last time and passed her to the  stableboy, I was half expecting a shot to ring out behind me as she was put out of her misery. At reception the polite staff were on hand to welcome us back, at dinner the gracious staff smiled throughout and at checkout in the morning the staff joked playfully as we waited for the pickup that would be taking us towards the point where we would be catching the next bus to Mandalay, but the damage had already been done. I had led there awake until the early hours the night before, running the previous nights encounter, trying to reason with myself that I had done nothing wrong, and that every other single burmese person we had encountered had been a pleasure meet in one way or another. but the overall lingering juvenile thought remained present. "If people's minds are that small, or that ignorant, Myanmar could just".

It takes me a while to wind up, but when I do it takes me longer to wind back down unfortunately. I knew the thoughts were incorrectly biased at the time, but it didn't stop them being there. I leant over and took another blood pressure tablet.

Just 8am, as hot air balloons were landing in the fields around the hotel, we commenced a short ride to meet up with the minibus just north of Bagan where we would switch vehicles for the rest of the journey up to Mandalay With just enough time spare to get in a couple of bottles of water and some sunflower seeds before departure we rushed to get back to the van and it was here that I rolled over onto the outside of my left ankle on an uneven surface. A loud crack signalled that the outcome wasn't good, the inability to put weight back through it properly kind of confirmed it. At the hotel in Mandaly, as I led there on the bed with my foot up for the next couple of days waiting for the bruising to come out, I was a little bit gutted that I wasn't going to get to see more of the city, but overall I was looking forward to the flight that would be taking us out of there and back to Bangkok.

foot info

Friday, 29 January 2016

Inle Lake / Nyaung Shwe 22/1/2016

"In kingdom come, they will be done in earth, as it is in heaven"

To those of a certain faith those words may come as a certain comfort, but I am not one of those especially when they happen to be stuck to the inside of the the windshield of the Night bus I'm travelling on. More comfort could be gained from the generous space inside. The ample legroom, the wide soft chair with an android based tablet attached and preloaded with films, music and games, was undoubtably a nice touch, unlike mine. Deft strokes don't come too easily when trying to play a game of "Silly Sausage" as the bus on which you are riding is shaken to near destruction. The roads underneath it being anything but smooth underneath.

The distance travelled over the next 11 and a half hours was roughly 600 km of hairpin corners, sharp inclines and sharper declines with our driver seemingly nervous of using his brakes, joyfully tailgating and overtaking on the downhills as we snaked our way through the darkness to our destination. When we finally got off the bus at 5:30am into the cool morning air, I was more than happy to walk the short distance to the hotel just to stay out of another vehicle for a bit. The Paradise Hotel we stayed at were good enough to let us check in very early and after a quick wash I went about sleeping again for a few hours, in the hope by the time I woke back up again my butt cheeks would be fully unclenched again.

Nyaung Shwe is a small town that lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, with dusty roads and open fronted restaurants, bike hire, travel agents and a large, open air food market walled in by small shops dotted around on the outside. It feels like a modern day wild west town with a friendlier atmosphere, but (with the occasion exception) one where the horses have been replaced by bikes, trucks with open engines bolted on the front and kids riding water buffalo. There is a single crossroads here that is controlled by a set of traffic lights that seems to only serve as a hindrance forcing traffic to stop whilst all around everything else moves smoothly and without delay. At peak times at this crossing you can sometimes encounter tailbacks that of formed of 3 or 4 vehicles. This is as close as it gets to carnage.

One of the reasons this town does so well is it's a launch point for trips to Inle Lake, the second largest lake in Myanmar that lies about 4 miles down river and is where fisherman fish and paddle their boats using traditional methods amongst several villages with that specialise in traditional manufacturing. Here you see the workers, the silversmiths, tobacconists, paper makers or weavers preforming industriously before (they hope) you can pend some money on something from their shop. The workshops are genuinely interesting though (up to a point) and the people seem like they really want  to show you what they do and explain the background of their wares, but the shop prices range from the completely reasonable to the stupidly excessive. I picked up a few things to remember the trip by but we also requested that our guide didn't take us to too many places, or take us to see any of the longneck people (my personal request, I just have something about it that doesn't sit right with me).

On the way back we just had time to stop at a monastery that is "famous" for having cats that the monks have trained to jump through hoops. But all we saw there really was cats just being cats, lying around, sleeping or cleaning themselves, and of course the now requisite market stalls at the entrance and exits. Temples seem to always be a good places for markets, and it's not hard to understand why.

Our boatman cost us 15,000 Kyat for the day (around 7-8 gpb) leaving from town for the lake at around 9am and returning us back to the jetty at about 3:30pm, also taking us to places of interest outside of the aforementioned tourist spots. For that sort of money it's definitely worth the trip, the lake itself is beautiful and it's interesting to see the communities that have sprung up in and around it, It's really quite amazing the sense of peace and tranquility that can be achieved out in the middle of a giant body of water, even with a bloody large engine roaring behind you as you power over it.

So Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake both get a giant thumbs up from me, but then I do have giant thumbs. There's a genuine sense of happiness that is exhibited by the people there, not only in conversation with you as a tourist as you might expect, but also as they just go about their day to day lives. It's not unusual to hear people singing as they are stacking up shelves or preparing a table,  people will try to instigate a race against you whilst pushing a cart, or jokingly shout at you as the whizz by on their bike. You get a feeling here that worry doesn't form a overly oppressive part of their day, and why on earth should it?

why should it anywhere?

Monday, 25 January 2016

Chiang Mai to Yangon - Wednesday 13th January 2016

The distance between Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand and Yangon according to Google is 231 miles, so what potentially could have been just a short flight away. However, not blessed with wings of our own we were limited to taking the scheduled flight option to get between the 2 points, which meant initially flying down to Bangkok, changing planes and then flying back up on the other side of the Thai / Myanmar border, overall a distance in the region of 3 to 4 times what it would have been if we were able to fly direct. Leaving the hotel at just after 2pm, we eventually landed in Myanmar around 7 hours later with only 2 hours of that time spent in the air. The rest was spent sat around waiting, drinking tea, tea drinking and waiting around.

Reminiscent of an airport set that might have been featured in an episode of ITV's Duty Free in the late 1980's,Yangon airport was nothing if not functional. No motorised walkways meant no motorised walkways not working, escalators went up and down as escaltors should and with only the 1 luggage delivery belt in use out of a possible 3 it was easy enough to find our luggage when they duly came through. In only a short period of time we passed through immigration, collected our baggage and exited the customs channel without a hitch. Unfortunately, by the time we made the foyer none of the Burmese telecom booths remained open, so we just obtained some local money from the available cashpoints and currency exchange counter and jumped into a taxi to the hotel. A trip of about half an hour which cost 13,000 Kyats, or around 6.50 in UK poundage. SIM cards would have to wait.

A smooth journey ensued on which by night were seemingly modern roads, with plenty of well lit signs for restaurants and garages along the way into the town and lots of them either in English or with English translations alongside. Notably there were no motorbikes on the road whatsoever. At the MK Hotel in Downtown Yangon we went through the checking in formalities, dropped the bags at our room several floors up and headed out to look for food, giving up the search shortly after as I had tripped multiple times on the dark, uneven street.  We instead settled for a couple of bags full of snacks and prepacked food from the local convenience store and returned without further adventure, injury or mishap. Back at the hotel the room smelt a little damp and musty, nothing overpowering but like it hadn't been used for some time, and whilst Vicky had a cold and didn't really notice it, I was too tired to care too much and shortly drifted off to sleep, ready for an early start the next day to see what the City had to offer. At 1 am I was wide awake listening to music, it seems the subconscious me never wants to play strictly by the rules, or do things that would ultimately be of benefit.

The plan was to stay in Yangon for a few days, however with Vicky struggling to get over her bug we decided not to rush things and spent those first few days taking it easy, walking the streets, visiting markets, empty malls, temples, pagodas, and squares, all the time surrounded by the noise and dust that comes with a city under construction. Building work is going on everywhere at a frantic rate, new flats, offices, shopping spaces, restaurants all ready to take advantage or this seemingly re-emerging city. However around, next to, under all this "Progress", there are still signs of people living in abject poverty, women and children asking for money to feed themselves and their families, not because they want to beg, but because they are desperate to survive. Women holding their offspring close by, themselves looking seriously gaunt and ill as they hope that they will be able to get a small amount of change in order to provide their children with something to eat is unfortunately the image of Yangon that will be the longest lasting in my mind above all the good.

Maybe it's that I've never over valued money as I've never had an abundance of it, or maybe I'm just a simpleton on the whole, but it seems wrong to me that while companies move into Yangon with big profits on their agenda, nothing is apparently happening to help those in the most need. I hope I'm wrong. It would be nice to see companies that are profiting from being in an area also contributingnto the greater good of the people in the area. I know this isn't just a Burmese problem, but for me it's the first time I have experienced anything quite like it, and for me then it's here that it's really struck home.

I don't want this to come across as just knocking Yangon, there was plenty there that was also really positive. The people are almost overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming, the coffee is awesome and an abundance of birds fly from picturesque old colonial buildings as people navigate the wide streets below, dodging traffic, pushing food stalls and laughing at any "close calls".  Monks, young and old, male and female, walk the street collecting money in large silver bowls, while gold adorns the stupas and temples that can be found along almost any direction you choose to navigate. There is a undeniable life, soul and energy that is hard not to be enamoured with here and the entire place feels like it's on the cusp of massive change, a venture into the yet unknown.

My only hope is that this change is a positive one for everyone who lives in Yangon, and the benefits can be passed on to those who perhaps are struggling the most in the city, rather than only those who find themselves perched at the very top of the tree.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Chiang Mai 9/1/2015

The first thing you notice when you first get off the train from Bangkok is the air. We arrived at the train station just after 12:30 and as we carried the bags along the platform on the way to the taxi area outside, the drop in heat and humidity when compared to the capital we had left behind came as a welcome relief. The temperature on arrival was a manageable 29 degrees centigrade and with the breeze coming in from the surrounding mountains, the change was a massive contrast to the hard to breath mid 30's we had been suffering through. Even the trip o the hotel, squashed into the back of a pickup truck taxi, boarded seats down each side, 8 people, luggage and a dog in a dress  wasn't enough to break into a sweat. First crammed in, first let out, 50 baht each and we were dropped right to the door as the remaining 7 passengers were loaded back up for the rest of their journeys.

Chiang Mai is Northern Thailands largest city, but is far removed from what you would usually expect from such a large place, feeling more like Bath on a Sunday than Bristol on, well any day. The streets whilst occasionally busy with traffic are not congested and the overall vibe is a relaxed one, at least in the day. It's a night that the place really comes alive, with numerous bustling street markets and lit temples all vying for your attention. You see much of the same products on display on many stalls at the various markets that you visit with maybe a small difference in prices, but the sheer variation on show is still huge. T-shirts, toys, souvenirs, soaps, insects, foot massages, food, food, drink and food, stalls almost too numerous too see let alone list.

On the first night we walked for what seemed like miles, down packed streets and through smaller less crowded alleys before almost falling upon the Srisuphan Temple at the top end of the market It was by far the shiniest temple I had ever laid eyes on and was tastefully dressed for the evening in it's' silver attire, blasted with changing coloured lights to add a little bit of "Vegas", that "OVER HERE LOOK AT ME!!!" factor.

It's a shame then that no women are allowed in. Vicky, desperate to see what the inside was like loaded me up with her giant phone and sent me in begrudgingly to shoot a video for her. For my 2 baht this sort of segregation based purely on gender ruins what could be an interesting experience for all to see. Unfortunately, with my honed eye for detail not yet developed, I missed out all the old playboy magazines that had been selotaped to the walls, the pole dancing monks, the pool table and the Galaga '88 arcade machine (complete with the original fag burnt buttons), only managing to capture the exquisite craftsman (or woman) ship that made up the rest of the interior decor.

I had mentioned to Vicky that I didn't really want to do any tours as we were only here for 3 days. Soured somewhat by the experiences so far where you get rushed from point a to b to c through f and k, given a short amount of time in each before being whisked to the next without getting a feel for any, but I negotiated with my other self successfully and we booked onto a tour which didn't seem to be too long or be trying to cram too much into a small, set period of time. It took us to the local National Park, to the highest point in Thailand, to local villages and a couple of temples and still gave us time in the evening to visit more of the night markets. In the cooler air in the day was able to wear my jumper for the duration of the tour. In the even cooler evening as temperature dropped further I was even able to slip into a set of jeans. Luckily they were mine.

The next day I woke up exhausted and Vicky was down with a cold, which called for a lazier day, for some.

Leaving vicky at the hotel I wandered up to the old town towards a couple of temples I had marked on my map, grabbing a coffee on the way and stopping to look more closely at buildings and signs en-route. At one of these stops a Thai chap started to talk,

"Where you from?" he smiled.
"Here we go" I thought", England" I said.
"Where in England? Not Birmingham?" Birmingham" was said in a very good brummie accent which I rightly commended him on, whilst trying to move on my way,
He carried on talking, explaining that he had been in England a long time ago, maybe 30 years around Birmingham and Yorkshire,  fighting,  and you could see by his lean stature and flat nose that it was a plausible enough story, but jokey and smiley I still tried to edge away in the direction of my intended destination, but it just wasn't happening fast enough.

"You looking for something? you look like you are looking.." he questioned cheerfully.
"Nope" I said, "just walking, off to see some temples."
"You want lady?" he asked, "Up here" (pointing up the street and to the left), "you want lady for free?"
"Errrrm, noooope" I reiterated, starting to walk away a bit more purposefully this time.
"Ladyboy, Lady, I get you Ladyboy for free?", this time I laughed and just walked off, "Nice to meet you" I said. "you have a good day."

He laughed back as I carried on away, with me, still a little unsure of what actually had just happened. But this sort of stuff only seems to go down when I am trudging alone somewhere on my own taking in the sights and sounds of what surrounds me at the time, I guess that's when I have my "Tourist" face on. It would be wrong to have to stop looking around on the basis of trying not to get hassled, but maybe it's time I donned a different guise before I head out. Maybe it's time to get myself a clown outfit and makeup!

I found the first of the temples I had come searching for just a short walk away. the temple at "Wat Pan Tao" was small and wooden, with a large gold statue at the end in the centre, donation pots lining the windowed side whilst being bathed in strips of light that were pushing in through the slatted boards. As usual with me I wasted the first few shots in the camera before I managed to come up with a few more closer to what I had wanted. Sometimes it's the feel of a place you want to convey, and sometimes it's harder for me to do that than just taking a picture of the brightest, or most central thing that is on display, and sometimes you still don't quite get what you were after anyway.

It's not often nowadays that I end up with a "Woah" moment, but that's what my internal voice shouted at me as the temple just around the corner came into view from behind the building that had been obscuring it. "Wat Chedi Luang" was built in the mid 14th century, but was damaged in about 1551 by an earthquake (or series of), but what is left is a huge imposing structure, still standing, damaged and missing details and most of it's statues (with the exception of some stone elephants on one corner), but firm, steady and enough of a draw some 600 years after its initial construction to make the walk to find it more than worthwhile.

I had read online that the temple area was even better at night, a sentiment I didn't really agree with as far as the main structure goes, but just behind the first temple I had visited that day, there was another budha statue hidden away. I had seen this earlier in the day but at the time hadn't given too much attention.

In the evening however, when lit by the stage, it became one of the stars of the show.

Wat a place.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Night Train to Chiang Mai - Fri January 8th 2015.

The late afternoon was spent with me still trying to get an answer from DW Sports and Fitness back in the UK as to why they had taken 2 months of gym fees from my bank account after my membership had been dutifully cancelled, and to try and see about arranging a refund of the total  amount taken. I was still waiting on a response to an email that I had sent them a few days before querying this action and I had tried twice to get through on the number for membership queries using my prepaid phone sim in Thailand but to no avail. One of the problems is that it takes you a few minutes of being in "the system" to find out your position in the queue and another 5 or 6 to get an update of how much progress you have made. On my first call I was told I was 20th and hung up after just a few minutes, unsure of how much credit I was using on my call back to blighty. On my second I was told after my initial wait that I was 15th in the queue, 10 minutes later I was informed that I was down to 8th. Both messages were bookended by several other messages robotically informing me that my call was important to them, and that if I was calling outside office hours the phone would still ring and I would be charged for my call. The last part of that in particular screams of a company doing it's best to squeeze money out of people, as I'm pretty sure that it would be easy enough to switch over to a message that says "sorry, but the office is currently closed, the opening hours are.....".

When I say "pretty sure", I obviously mean sure because it's the kind of message I have been hearing on the end of attempted telephone calls for the last 10 years or more, but I'm starting to get side tracked here so I'll leave it by writing that as of 1 week after the initial e-mail, I have still had no direct response as to why money had been taken from my account in the first place, or details about getting the money they have taken refunded. I guess I'm not going to be rejoining there then when I return to the UK.

So after all that faffing about and stress caused there was just enough time for a quick catch up with Ronnie, our guide from Cambodia 2 years ago with whom Vicky had kept in touch, grabbing a quick bit of tea with him at a restaurant in close proximity to the train station before stocking up on snacks and drinks from the 7/11 in preparation for the 14 hour train ride up north. At about 9pm we made our way over to the train that was waiting on platform 10, prepared our sleeping bunks in the carriage ready for sleep and tied pink string around our luggage in the walkway to keep it from falling over in the night, and then patiently sat and waited through several "bumps" and "Jolts" as the carriages were connected together. At just after 10:30pm, the 22:00 train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai eased itself out of the stations glare, through brightly lit and colour suburbs before eventually being cloaked by the darkness of the surrounding Thai countryside.

The first hour or so was spent chatting and watching the scenery dim before I eventually decided to hit the top bunk and crash out. A minute or so later we were "top to toe" in the bottom bunk again as I tried to thaw back out from my little misadventure. A further hour on, as I woke myself up from snoring in my haunched position I again retired upstairs, which had by now thankfully come out of it's "ice" age into a "wrap up warm" age and I led there, awake only briefly as the train, lazily rocked and rolled, inducing me into light hibernation. By the time I came around again it seemed that spring was near, so I made my way to the toilets at the end of the carriage before the spring sprung a leak.

It was light by 7:30am, but grey from the cloud and the mist that resulted from the cooler air outside. By 8:30am the sun was beginning to break through and douse the scenery with the colour it had been longing for since the day before. Lush countrysides, mountain passes, workers and towns were passed or carved through as we called at the last few stations on the way to our destination, arriving at Chiang Mai station just after 12:30pm and disembarking into a much fresher, lighter and more pleasant feel that the one we had left behind in Bangkok.

It was simply a pleasure to be able to take a nice deep breath again, without that feeling of denseness that accompanies each such intake in the city of Bangkok.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Down and out in Bangkok - Dec 2015 - Jan 2016.

The Bangkok I returned to felt different than I remembered it. The call of the TukTuk driver less often heard and less intrusive than 2 years past, the sellers on the MBK 3rd floor less interested in drawing  your attention as you sweep through the floor, engrossed by the giant phablets that were clasped tightly in their comparatively tiny hands. It all added up to a less frantic, more subdued feeling, less energetic, maybe a bit more mature. It was easy to draw the conclusion that something was different in Bangkok, but there was also the possibility that maybe it just seemed less frenetic, that maybe some of the places I had travelled to since the last time I was here somehow made Bangkok a much less daunting affair. In the end I  drew the conclusion that maybe it was a mixture of both.

I spent the first week or so just getting a feel for the place again, visiting places I had been before with older but fresher eyes. Walking around I was surprised at how well I my body was coping in the city, the humidity no longer as imposing, the heat not as intense and I was able to move around fairly easily and at length without breaking into a pouring sweat. In the evenings as I talked through my observations over a beer or 2 with others who had been here before, I found many were generally in agreement with me over the more languid nature of Thailands "City of Angels" (or "City of Angel" if you go by one of the local T-shirt prints) when comparing it to Bangkok past. I don't know what it is, but I must be able to articulate my thoughts and ideas more cohesively when I have a bottle of Ale beside me. Either that or maybe a mischievous look in my eye that is usually otherwise well hidden. A week or so after arrival however things started to head a little bit south. 

I had arranged to meet Vicky in Bangkok just before Christmas with the idea of hanging out for a bit before we would be heading up to Chiang Mai and onto Burma together in early January, being safety in numbers and all that. Unfortunately within a couple of days of catching up, something else decided to take me down. Suddenly tiredness was the ruler of the day with planned visits to night markets and other places we wanted to go falling foul of my inability to keep going. Some days I could manage 6 - 8 hours straight before heading back to bed, others I would be struggling to keep going after 2. All days for about a week would have me requiring a sleep by mid afternoon and then struggling to find any energy or enthusiasm for travel or adventuring out in the evening. The only positive being that we were able to find some really good street food a very short distance from the hotel but even these small trips were leaving me completely drained, sleep was never more pillow drop away. The plan for New Years eve consisted of heading out towards the shopping areas of Bangkok (Siam, Paragon, Centralworld), grabbing something to eat and enjoying the spectacle of seeing in 2016 in the hustle, bustle and bright lights and entertainment that had been under preparation in the area since before I had arrived. The reality of the evening was we arrived at Siam at around 8, had had something to eat and small wander and headed back to the hotel by 10. It was not really the way I had envisaged my time here. The idea of Hospital checks had been floated, with my conscious self giving my physical self a "by the end of the weekend" deadline to start shaking this off, which luckily it seemed to start doing, but it's still taking it's time to piss off completely. My rhetoric here maybe indicates that it's welcome has now been truly outstayed.  

So not as busy or as enjoyable as I would have perhaps wanted these last few weeks to have been, but they haven't been completely unproductive. I have managed to pick up a replacement unwaterproof waterproof Sony Z2 phone (albeit it in purple) for 6,800 baht, which doesn't seem to be too bad when you consider that it would have cost me around 4,500 baht to send the broken model back to the UK for repair (not including having to get it sent back after) along with picking up a few other bits and bobs to replace items that have been broken or lost on my travels so far. I got to watch StarWars: The  Force Awakens in the fantastic Paragon iMax 3d cinema, standing for the pre-show reel of the king before the feature was shown before pouring half a bucket of popcorn over the person sat in front of me as I struggled with both my 3d and normal glasses, and then laughing throughout as the man sat directly to Vickys right somehow managed to sleep through the entire ear deafening feature. 

The Snores were strong in that one. 

so this means the ones before are even less waterproof than the ones that let in water?