Best left to imagination and verse: Mandalay

Best left to imagination and verse: Mandalay
Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)


An extract from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Mandalay (1890): “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.” No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else But them spicy garlic smells, An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay… Meanwhile, a ‘particularly personal track’ (according to his own website), Robbie Williams’ 2001 hit Road to Mandalay (the site continues) ‘carries a French vibe and was written while Robbie was in France taking part in a television show.’ We know Kipling never went to Mandalay and it’s safe to say a glimpse of Myanmar’s second city didn’t inspire Robbie’s summery hit either. I’m trying to say that Mandalay is a concrete monstrosity entirely undeserving of its evocative name. While in Yangon we uncovered a beating heart underneath the grime; if there is any character here it is well hidden indeed. The Royal Palace is first on our modest to-see list, occupying a sizeable chunk of the downtown map our hostel finally roots out. However, despite the original dating back only as far as the late 1800s, what’s here today is merely a model. This uninspiring remake resembles a dormant film set, crude royal figurines kneeling on thrones in otherwise empty rooms. Further in, we finally locate a museum displaying some historical pieces…in the dark! All of this makes the long trudge there and back in the heat and the heavy security a bit needless. To be fair, after Bagan we are both suffering from temple, pagoda and stupa fatigue which is not Mandalay’s fault. Even so, another handful of them alongside a panoramic view of a city we are anxious to vacate seems scant reward for a 45-minute slog up Mandalay Hill. Moan, moan, moan. A trip further up the Irrawaddy River to Mingun does make a nice half-day outing; there we find a big bell and an interesting white pagoda. And it wasn’t Mandalay. Back in the city we at least track down some great street food, at atmospheric barbecue and Indian joints. Otherwise, the Navel oranges in the supermarket down the road from our hostel prove to be juicy, and affordable iced coffee can be found from Seezar’s Bistro near the train station.


A day on the Irrawaddy River

A day on the Irrawaddy River
Mandalay, Myanmar

Mandalay, Myanmar


Dep: 05:00 Arr: 16:45 We decide to take a 12-hour boat trip north on the Irrawaddy River to reach our next destination, largely in a bid to avoid calling this blog post “the Road to Mandalay” After an inauspicious 05:00 embarkation in the dark, down a sandy bank and across a narrow plank, we settle in for what is a delightfully slow all-day meander up the river. After the sun rises gracefully (if not spectacularly) the scenery is as flat and lazy as the boat: long sloping sandbanks are occasionally tree-studded, occasionally broken up by modest villages. Seeing how the Burmese use their most important waterway is interesting; the thickest trees are cut down and the logs set on long vessels driven against the current by tug boats. Kids take their livestock for a midday bath by the shore. Boats carrying families and other tourists drift by. I’m actually sad it’s over as the water’s edge suddenly gets busy and we pull in to Gaw Wein Jetty, a ten minute taxi ride from our next hostel in – on first glance – non-descript downtown Mandalay.


Indiana Baxter-Ang and the Temples of Bagan

Indiana Baxter-Ang and the Temples of Bagan
Nyaung-U, Myanmar (Burma)

Nyaung-U, Myanmar (Burma)


March 28th 2017 feels like one of the days I left the UK for. We are met at the train cabin door by our (budget) motel pickup and whisked back to our lodgings, where an hour later we hire and teach ourselves how to operate e-bikes. All that remains then is to grab a map and ride out into the stupa studded plains of Bagan… ….and then stop at the tourist information office for a better map than the one the motel gave us… …THEN ride out into the stupa studded plains of Bagan. It’s exactly how Indiana Jones would have done it. The area is divided into Old Bagan, fenced in by ancient city walls and home to the upmarket resorts, functional New Bagan where the locals displaced by the tourism boom largely reside, and our base Nyaung-U somewhere in between. In the surrounding plains the 2200 odd temples that have survived the eroding effects of time, earthquakes and neglect date back to between 1044 and 1287. Just off the busy main road we visit the biggest sites: Ananda, Sulamani, Htilominlo, Dhammayazika…these are pagodas that have hosted pilgrimages for hundreds of years and nowadays come with their own circus of vendors and stalls. Empty horse and cart taxis linger, kids sell postcards and impromptu guiding services for ‘school money’ and others proudly introduce unsigned Bagan sand paintings, identical in every temple and yet claimed to be unique and created by the seller. It’s exhausting but the majestic historical structures are well worth braving the local profiteering. Elsewhere the experience feels more genuine. Piloting our bikes down sandy tracks and rocky paths, we reach one of the many structures that merely has an archeological reference number on our map. Or it probably would do if we knew where we were on the map! We look around the ground floor adorned with original statues and engravings depicting the Buddha before pushing ourselves up a narrow rocky staircase to explore the top. I emerge into the open air through a nest of angrily buzzing insects! They swarm above our heads as we quickly move to a safe distance to admire the roof of the pagoda and the view of plains. Temporarily we are stuck as the nest we have disturbed settles into a crawling mass on the small frame leading back to ground level. I take a perilous walk around the top; there’s no other way down. Presently a woman’s head appears on the stairs at the opening. Smiling and encouraging, her relaxed demeanour regarding the aggressive locals cajoles us down. We tip her in return for our time on her temple and continue our explorations. The restorations to the many damaged temples have attracted some controversy; original materials and designs appear to been eschewed in favour of quick fixes. Also dispiriting are the dirty great golf course, adjoining posh hotel and a modern eyesore of a viewing tower in the south eastern part of the site. However, for now at least, it is still possible to get lost and, alone in the presence of Buddha at an unmapped temple, feel like you are the archaeologist revealing 800 year-old structures to the world. Have written to Harrison Ford to suggest another Indiana Jones film where he gets to ride an e-bike. Have yet to receive a reply.


Villages in the dust: on the rails in Myanmar

Villages in the dust: on the rails in Myanmar
Nyaung-U, Myanmar (Burma)

Nyaung-U, Myanmar (Burma)


Dep Yangon: 27th March 16:00 Arr Bagan: 28th March 10:30 As we settle into our sleeper cabin, take in the small lavatory swimming in surface water, plucky fan turning on the low ceiling, a young lad comes bustling in. “Food? Chicken curry.” There is no restaurant car on the train, so we trust him with dinner. Later, as the train sways and bumps and jilts and jolts through Yangon’s suburbs, I catch the same lad grabbing ingredients from an outstretched arm on a platform from our passing train, but failing to reel in two large bottles of water from an old lady who curses as they fall from her grasp onto the concrete. Our would-be chef tosses a small wad of bills onto the platform just before we clatter past. Including our dinner money I suppose. Three hours out of Yangon we stop at a small platform in front of the latest mud and corrugated iron village dug out of the dry earth beside the tracks. Kids pasted in thanaka – a yellowish tree bark paste acting as natural sunscreen – wave and shout, turning away delighted when they get a return salute from the train. Dogs chase and growl. Groups of men play football over a volleyball net in the dust, uninterested in yet another Bagan express. That dust is everywhere; over our clothes, in our lungs and on our kit. Kaili’s white top goes brown. Our bag of food supplies belches grime when I pick it up. “Food? Chicken curry.” Dinner appears in polystyrene boxes through the large open windows. The lids scratch open. Inside, our German cabinmates looking on, rice and an oily sauce with meat that doesn’t look like chicken. Water, beer and samosas are all suddenly available as add-ons through the window. Sunset is at 18:00. Spotting those in the fields sowing or leading malnourished cattle and Myanmar’s iconic golden stupas quickly gives way to self-preservation as reconnaissance units of various kinds of flying insects invade the cabin. Magnetised by our strip lighting, they settle on our bedsheets and our skins. Our German companions persist in reading a while. While the lavatory door clatters restlessly against its frame, a squad of dragonflies buzz angrily around the light at the far end of the otherwise dark cabin. Midges cloud the sleeping area. We watch the besieged light as the train slings us around in our cots, as transfixed as the insects. It’s like something out of a horror movie. After a cloudy sunrise the following morning grubby children are strung out along the approach to Bagan. They aren’t interested in waving, they are here for breakfast; snacks are tossed to them from the train for ten miles or so. Their unwavering focus on being the first to reach a chocolate bar or a packet of noodles in the dirt is heartbreaking. The movement of the train has shaken us in our dust – covered skins but the ground-level view of Myanmar and the sheer adventure of navigating it feels like a fair reward as we eventually pull into Bagan ten minutes ahead of schedule.


First post! 

Yangon, Myanmar


Half way through our journey, Ed tells his guest blogger (yours truly) that the blog had to move. So with my first post on the new blog I go way back to when Myanmar started, to one of the our first eats in Myanmar. Here we go… 

Tea time in Myanmar, as we learnt from many sources, is an institution. Men cluster around little plastic tables and chairs in their longyis to hobnob. Teatime comes with an assortment of snacks. The samosa was delicious until I realised there was mutton in it, but it was delicious while it lasted. Tea is strong rocket fuel strength black tea, with the bitterness masked by a conspicuous amount of condensed milk and sugar. 

Ya Kun, anyone? 

Sugared out

Yangon, Myanmar 


Myanmar’s take on falooda. Was it as thick as it looked? Yes. Was it as cloying as it looked? Yes, was it teeth-achingly sweet? Of course. Did we enjoy it? First 2 mouthfuls yes. Were we impressed? The first mouthful of ice cream, coconut milk, syrup, sago and jelly was great! Then we were promptly reminded of how much the locals love their sugar. 

A string of Ocean Pearls: Yangon

A string of Ocean Pearls: Yangon
Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)

Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)


Our bags appear on the baggage reclaim belt at Yangon airport covered in dust and sand. This immediate impression of uncleanliness only intensifies once we’ve got out into the city centre. Whatever redeeming qualities Yangon may have initially lurk beneath the stench and the sight of roadside detritus. The tidiness of the currency is always an indicator, and where Myanmese (Burmese) Kyats (MMK) are concerned, nothing that hasn’t come straight from the bank is pleasant to handle. Chewing red betel is evidently very popular, many of the friendly locals smile to reveal dashed, blackened front teeth and gums, periodically spitting red globs on to the pavements. We’ve booked Ocean Pearl Inn-3, a well-reviewed place downtown. But the free hotel pick up takes us to Ocean Pearl Inn-1, a shabbier-looking hotel away from the main attractions. When I ask why, the manager of -1 replies, “This one is cheaper, here you get a choice of two rooms, there you must stay on the fourth floor, there you don’t get your own bathroom.” Aren’t the guests supposed to be responsible for such comparisons? Anyway, I meet some equally confused French travellers who have come to -1 from -3 to book onward travel from Yangon who convince me it’s best we stick with what we’ve got. Subsequently Yangon does emerge from the litter as an exhilarating city of glittering golden pagodas moulded by contrasting external forces: aside from the remaining colonial architecture and easily-navigable grid-like road system, Indian and Chinese cultural and culinary influences are now being joined by modern, Singapore-like shopping malls. Indeed, we spot a couple of large Singaporean breakfast chain cafés and other brands. “Do I notice Yangon changing? Yes, every single day.” This is James, our food tour guide and Yangon native. “In 2011 even a second-hand Japanese car was $30,000. A SIM card was about $100. Those things are affordable now. Although our country isn’t stable, I feel that after some more negative times it will get positive.” I hope that also applies to the nerve-jangling road crossings. In the absence of any pedestrian safe intersections, even the locals spot a gap and jog warily across. He’s generally not the most forthcoming with information but James does lead us to a deliciously crunchy and refreshing pennywort salad and a whole grilled telapia at the roadside is also very memorable. Otherwise oily curries abound, while tofu here is made from chickpeas. Then, in a compact analogy for how Asian and Western tastes typically differ, our guide bigs up a green vegetable soup with 20 ingredients that Kaili thinks is wonderful, healthy and cooling and I believe has been scraped off the bottom of an abandoned pond. After the tour James kindly helps us to buy a longyi each. This unisex sarong-like garment is worn by many locals here and-once I’ve learnt how to tie it-I can see why, it’s far cooler than a trouser or short and reduces the chill of dawn and dusk. Over an eye-wateringly sugary afternoon tea, served with delicious samosas on kindergarten-sized plastic chairs and tables in the road, Kaili and I consider our onward itinerary. We have 25 days of visa remaining. The beaches and islands in the far south are reputedly beautiful, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake to the north are all must-sees, but it turns out we are in Myanmar at the time of a festival that’ll see all public transport and most restaurants closed for over a week next month. Furthermore, after Myanmar do we go east or west? Tea time over, we catch the train into the countryside to find out if we made the right choices. Kaili’s remarks: The samosas were amazing. You get a nice chunk of filling with every crunch of the samosas and there is no oily aftertaste. Hallmarks of a properly stuffed and well fried samosa. The filling was subtly spiced and distinctively meaty taste with small bits of potato. A Wikipedia search reveals that the Burmese samosas may be filled with mutton (which I generally am not a fan of). Mehh. But they were amazing anyway. You can find then at Golden Tea House, which a google search will tell you is a widely recommended tea house. I suspect you could find the samosas at a cheaper price from a samosa vendor directly, but you might not find The Samosa Vendor who supplies the tea house with samosas. The tea house mark up may well be quite justified. Being intrepid eaters, we sussed out some highly recommended Shan noodles.


Slightly too long in Saigon

Slightly too long in Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


“Are there any rules?” I ask, as my guide swings us onto the roundabout. Around us, traffic merges and changes direction at will. “Yes,” Nina shouts back, “but I don’t know what they are!” Navigating Saigon’s sweltering chaotic streets is much more fun on the back of a bike, especially with regular stops for incredibly varied local dishes. A surprise guest blogger (Kaili) will describe the foods we encounter in Saigon in a later post. Otherwise, everyone we meet seems to be waiting to go somewhere else. David opposite me in the dorm has surrendered his passport for a university application, another dude gets the day of his outward flight wrong so hangs on another 24 hours, and Felipe from Switzerland (yeah, WHAT ABOUT FELIPE FROM SWITZERLAND I hear you ask) pursues his search for a second-hand scooter that’ll last him more than twenty minutes with admirable pragmatism. And us? We wind up spending almost a week here while we wait for a visa for the next destination. There are, of course, some non-gastronomic sites for us to fill a couple of days with. After all, the Viet Cong covered the ground beneath the countryside just north of Saigon with an incredible network of multi-layered tunnels during the conflict with the Americans. Armed with a rather biased summary of the conflict from the powerful War Remnants Museum, we take local buses to reach the more authentic end of the network near Cu Chi. Bats flit about the narrow, cramped tunnels, leading us to underground kitchens, treatment tables and meeting rooms. Live booby traps and massive B-52 bomb craters abound in the woods above ground. Back in the city centre, the Reunification Palace details the events leading up to and including the union of north and south Vietnam. A couple of days later I get the ok from the Myanmar government. I will be glad to be back in Saigon for another spell later in the trip. For the time we’re waiting for our onward train tickets of course.


A Vietnamese staycation

A Vietnamese staycation
Thành phố Phan Thiết, Vietnam

Thành phố Phan Thiết, Vietnam


Mui Né fishing village is a 4.5 hour train ride north from Saigon. The first adventurers to get to this area found deserted wind-blown beaches, but these days Saigon weekend breakers and backpackers like us outnumber the locals. We stroll along the beach just south of the village and find delicious fresh grouper at a restaurant called Mr Crab. The cheapest drink on the menus is beer, at about 30p. Out in the water kite surfers enjoy the continuous gusts while the sun wilts the energy levels of everybody else… …except the taxi drivers. They hoot and honk and shout their way up and down the otherwise tranquil string of resorts looking for business.