In Northern Thailand we left Karl and Steele in Chang Mai. A wonderful place in the hills. Lush, green, full of adventure and ‘real’ Thai people to meet (not the fake ‘give me all your money ones of the South). Jesse and I were on our way to Burma (Myanmar) albeit dodging the coup in Bangkok by 4 hours to get our same-day visa for it.
We headed North 5 hours with the assurance we would be able to get to Mandalay from a border town called Mae Sai. We were wrong. Happened to waste a day (and nearly void our Myanmar visa). We finally got to Mae Sot, west now of chang mai, to enter via the south. Great little town with cheap food and nice people. Into Burma we go.
The mountain pass to a nice village called Hpa-An runs on alternate days being so narrow. We only just found this out and so we thank the mystical force that has been guiding our lucky coincidences on this whole trip so far. Odd days you Head west, even days you head East. We entered on an odd day. Hpa-an was great, got to meet a bunch of open minded travellers and spend some quality time with them. Hired some motorbikes and saw the sights – field of a thousand buddahs, local watering whole, a rock quarry (with dynamite, it was cool!) few temples and a steep, steep climb up to a monastery on a table top mountain. Awesome views but it was very very hot! Managed to get myself into a bit of trouble at the base of the mountain but you can ask about that later.
We headed to Yangon (Rangoon) to see how the city was. We heard that Burma was developing rapidly and you can really see this in Yangon. They were right, around every block you saw democracy, capitalism and (chinese) investment changing and developing the city. When we saw a lot of sewage and exposed infrastructure we asked about it – its moving so rapidly none of it can keep up so big overseas hotels will just dump any waste (biological or consumable) either into the allyways or nextdoor into an empty or developing lot. A lot of old english and french architecture lined the streets wherever development wasnt taking place. Visited the zoo briefly which was actually quite good and met another kiwi who was a really really good guy. Its funny when you travel you connect with the most bizzare people. I dont mean this is a direct way to the person but i talk as though you wouldnt normally associate with these characters in everyday life back home. You dont get a chance to. John had a massive heart and loved to chew the fat. We travelled with him for the rest of Burma.
We took a bus up to Bagan. The jewel of Burma. A huge world heritage, UNESCO site full of 2200+ Buddhist temples ranging back 1500 years. A magnificent sight that really doesnt compare to any set of temples, relics, stupas i have seen yet. They say Angkor Wat is like a huge Chinese dinner, you get it all at once and Bagan is more like Tapas, you take each one in one by one until you are full. It was hard to see them all but i felt like we did manage to fit a lot it (even if we were on crappy electric scooters).
I cannot describe the beauty of this area! From a sunrise and a sunset on different temples to the silence and desserted-ness of each of them you do really feel like an explorer. This was the spiritual highlight for me and a must do for anyone. It wont be the same in 2 years time. From here we took the road to Mandalay. Average. After a nice 18 hour overnight bus sleeping on the floor under monks robes and other assorted garments other passenges couldnt fell me using we were back in Hpa-An ready to head east.
Burma is a fantastic country. Its what i imagined India to be like 10 years ago. Beautiful, untouched countryside & villages, transportation far below par, regulation non-existant but it all seems to work.Dirty but building very fast, tourist-capitalism (if i can say that) hasnt crept in yet- everything is open and free. The people are the nicest people in the world. You probably hear this about the Tibetans, Cambodians, Nepalese or the Laotians but im telling you right now, th Burmese are. A high percentage speak english but with a kindness not even the smallest, cutest grandmother could beat. They are extremely welcoming, comforting, generous and self-less (A complete opposite of the Russian folk we are dealing with today)
I have a little story i tell to people to encapsulate the above;
John and i climbed on top of a temple in the middle of the night, up construction and scaffolding to marvel at both the stars and the temples with little more acknowledgement than a grunt from a friendly, sleeping guard. Afterwards we were invited back the next day to meet the builders and have lunch.
Re-united with Karl and Steele we hired motorbikes and did the 4 hour ride over the mountain to a lovely little place called Pai. (Steele caught a mini van as it was raining- i wish i did too) Pai is awesome, dont get me wrong, but the drive up to it was incredible. Vast, green, rolling hills and mountains blanketed by a soft, tropical mist. Set in North West Thailand we got to see waterfalls, hot springs, pine trees with rainy weather to boot. It was great and Pai itself had a lot of character. A riverside backpackers (Purple Monkey) was home for a while. They had a pet monkey that rode around on a dog, awesome people, frequent drinking games (our favourite being beers-bie). Pai was like a hillside Byron Bay. Hippies, expats, gunja, waterfalls, wholesome food, music scene etc etc. It was hard to leave. But we did. Jesse Flakey Snifter Scotson left a little earlier and we would meet up with him a little later on on the trip.
Laos. High expectation was reaffirmed when we first arrived but went downhill the more we entered the belly of the beast- its usually the opposite. We took a 2 day slow boat from Chang Rai to Luang Prabang. Great boat ride. Amazing scenery along the Mekong which we werent expecting, met some nice people to travel with (including some rad english folk who we would bump into repeatedly-which im ok with) and had a great tine. Luang Prabang was a bit of a let down but we made the most of it.
Next was Vang Vieng. Another riverside town that was reminiscent of ______(fill in the name of any hedonistic, party-goer beach island in Southern Thailand). I also just need to point out that every bar here has lounges instead of seats and they play back-to-back friends all day er’day. Karl, Steele and i help a guy rebuild his bar. opium based massages, zip-lining, jam sessions, dread-cutting, kayaking along riverside bars fueling you with more booze than you can shake a stick at. We havent really partied that much (and no where near as much as i know you think we have) on this trip so we let go a bit here whilst we waited for Jesse.
We travelled 26 hours south to a place called 4000 islands. We visited two. It was hard to see more when they constituted a 2×2 mound with 3 tussocks upon it a an island. This place was ok. Very secluded so power, cheap food and the sound of traffic were hard to come by which made it great. Reunited we rode bikes to a waterfall along a dirt track by which Steele, myself and two very accommodating Isreali girls got lost. We did however stumble upon a bush shack with partying Laotians inside. We joined the party. Beer lao was flowing and a lot of embarassing dancing. We were lost but we were happy.
After a quick $80 bribe to the Vietnamese Consulate we had our brand-spanking new visa in 30 minutes and were ready for Indochina. We planned to motorbike from HCMC to Hanoi but due to the detour to Myanmar and the beauty of Northern Thailand we had overstayed a little to long and now only had 3 weeks. We crammed a lot in to make the most of the short timeframe we dealt ourselves albeit haphazardly – East, Central, South, Central-inland, East coast then 30 hour train North.
Hoi-an. In my top 5 places (and thats a hard list now) on this Third rock from the sun. For those have been there you need no explanation, for those of you that havent been, make that your next place (after China). An old trading town between the Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Dutch and Mediterranean. A huge mix of cultural and architectural reminisce left behind now inhabited by the driven Vietcong. The whole old town in an UNESCO site and by law have to display lanterns at night. Steele alikened it to cobble streets on Tuscany. I have no idea but i will let you know. Regardless its nostalgic in a weird, i can imagine a distant reletive walking these alleyways kind-of way. The food is amazing and its known for its tailors so you can get anything made and i mean anything. Cao Lao, a unique dish to Hoi-an of cold noodles with fresh herbs, pulled beef, lime and chilli with a soya-sauce-5-way. Went to Marble mountains which stick out like the krasts of Thaialnd with huge carvings inside caves.
Next was Nha Trang. A mainly Russian dominated beach side resort city with the worlds longest over water cable car leading to an amusement park island. Yip, we went there and it was awesome. Meet some really cool people and hung with them for the duration of our stay. Hired motorbikes as we do and went to a few waterfalls and swimming holes where locals we catching fresh fish and cooking it. Lunch was free and great. Had a sneaky scuba dive and steele got Dengue fever. Poor kid. All good now. Managed to meet 2 kids from Nelson working at the only late night bar which once again confirms the insignificance of the saying “its a big world out there’. There was an average to poor micro brewery which matched the taste of the beer at which i drilled the staff about and took notes on how not to operate a brewery or brewpub.
Inland we went to Dalat. A cool climate, hilltop town adorned with french architecture. Loved it here too. Once again met some wicked people and we all went canyoning and stayed at ‘mumas house’. A tight-nit community of backpakers where everything is shared together. Lunch, Dinner, Tea, Beers and beds all shared with the family. We got to met the owners for a ‘private meeting’ where we met his actual family, made dinner with them, watched the World Cup and went to some local cafes. Went for a day mission and drunk some weasel poo coffee, climbed behind (another) waterfall and had a lovely drive through the hills. Bliss
Mui Ne. Another beach side Russian town with a way more laid back vibe than Nha Trang. Twas in this town we visited the vast, bewildering landscape of endless sand dunes and rode atop them majestically with 4x4s. On the way in we saw a huge castle with a golf course, 5 star villas and a vineyard encompassing it. We had to go see. Half day rental on a scooter, our new threads from Hoi-An and an adventurous attitude Karl and i were off. We were escorted to a giant dinning hall/cellar fit for a king of 10th century Deutschland. Four healthy tastings we were tipsy but not enough to but the $100 wines we were being oh so nicely asked to purchase. It was time to explore. I have to say at this point it was low season. or what looked like low season. Behind a door and down a mysterious stairwell we went without any resistance. So here i am, walking through a huge underground cellar of rock and barrels with Karl in tow. I hear a door open and murmuring. ‘Its just Karl finally making his way in’ i thought.
Wrong. It was a 50 pax strong Chinese tour closing in on me. Looking back with utter confusion but with the mixed expression of a possum caught in headlights and a child who knows hes done something very wrong i proceeded to have a very misinterpreted, lost-in-translation conversation with a very agitated, non-english speaking Chinese woman wearing a loudspeaker. I had 50 Chinese laughing at who-knows-what. A bout of flailing hand gestures whilst waking towards the door and i was out the huge, castle-like door and its siege bar across to stop any unwanted tour guides. So we made our way to where they came from and found a fridge of tasters. What else could we do except finish the bottle of $60 Californian bubbly they clearly couldnt and made off with a Chardonnay down Karls pants to enjoy over a nice tapas dinner. God we’re romantic.
Hanoi was grand. I hated the place when i first went but fell in love with it the second time round. We stayed in the central backpacker district.
Seb. What a champion. Our bromance from Perth only went as far as him shouting me free booze, me shouting him free feeds and a large amount of quality banter in between but alas a bromance for life. He messaged me 2 days prior asking where i was. Hadnt heard from, or anyone from Perth for Months.
‘Thats a very weird thing to ask, does he know im on holiday’ i thought and i replied in a jovial tone, ‘Im in Vietnam bro, heading to Hanoi on a shitty 33 hour train ride of pain’.
‘Sweet, ill see you there on Sunday, where are you staying?’ The crazy bastard replied.
‘What the fuck? Ok man, hell yeah! see you soon’. i said.
This is where i think we got along. Although it was never talked about while chewing the fat, we are both transient, open, in-the-moment people. Connected on a level that no matter where,when or how, a good & honest time will follow, These are friends for life so follow spontaneity wherever it takes you.
In Hanoi i think we all changed in some way. I cant put my finger on how or the cause. It could have been all the booze, the people we met, the (not so) daunting prospect of China or it could have been Seb. Either way i wouldn’t change it for the world; Im still yet to figure if it was for bad or for good but right now it feels right. Traveling will open your eyes one way and blind them in another. Right now ive still got my blinkers on and i think that is right where i want them – Russia has some secrets i probably dont want to see.
We headed to Nanning, China of an overnight train where a completely unexpected world awaited us…
Check out our video diary of the above here
P.s- Today (5/8) marks my 7 years away from home. Id like to thank everyone who has helped me, taught me, listened to me and met me. You know who you are and you are probably one of them. Youve all helped and touched my life in one way or another and i am eternally grateful for that. Where i am now, completely lost in Siberia, youve shaped and help me to get here. I miss all of your dearly and i hope our paths cross in god speed. Until then, youre an amazing person, thank you and one love.