White Shadows

White Hibiscus

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

My ability to sympathise with this attitude is currently limited. The actual act of travelling from one place to the next is the evil you have to suffer in order to arrive at your destinations. Well that’s how I’m feeling at this current moment in time, anyway: The last three days have been occupied entirely by such ‘movement’. In fact, I think it’s been the longest total amount of time I’ve ever spent in assorted methods of transport over such a short space of time.

The first two days were occupied entirely by 10+ hours a day on an aptly named slow-boat up the Mekong river from the fantastic Luang Prabang. A lack of A/C and comfortable seats was not entirely welcome. The conditions were exacerbated by the motor breaking down and a conversion to a rickety tuk-tuk. This was an experience not unlike sitting on a bucking bronco whilst simultaneously showering in the reverse setting of a hoover. The sweaty, wooden snail-boat suddenly seemed like five star luxury.  A brief night was spent in the unimposing border town of Xuang Hai, followed by a further day’s journey into Thailand in a, far preferable, minibus.

Yes, the views were pretty stunning, but there's a limit to how much you can appreciate them after 20 hours of the same scene.

Yes, the views were pretty stunning, but there’s a limit to how much you can appreciate them after 20 hours of the same scene.

Sunset from the back of a Laotian tuk-tuk.

Sunset from the back of a Laotian tuk-tuk.

Today’s journey was a substantial improvement as we were able to stop off at sights en route to our final destination of Chiang Mai.

The 'Golden Triangle'. From this point in Thailand you can see the border into Myanmar on the left of the river and into Laos on the right. Historically infamous for use in the opium trade.

The ‘Golden Triangle’. From this point in Thailand you can see the border into Myanmar on the left of the river and into Laos on the right. Historically infamous for use in the opium trade.

The Golden Buddha, shining out as a welcoming beacon to the two other immediately adjacent countries.

The Golden Buddha, shining out as a welcoming beacon to the two other immediately adjacent countries.

The second and most impressive of our slight detours was ‘Wat Rong Khun’ in Chiang Rai, more commonly known to foreigners as the ‘White Temple’. Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple is unique in that it’s entirely (you guessed it) white, with mirrored glass mosaics over the structure emphasising this brilliance, which alludes to the purity of the Lord Buddha. It’s very contemporary, being built only in 1997. I’m surprised that it’s not received with more controversy due to the quite shocking nature of some of the sculpture: skulls and skeleton forms woven into the mesh of walls and an area, near the entrance, of arms reaching from the ground – perhaps representing tormented souls in purgatory.

Inside the temple is a wax-work monk that took me a good half hour to dismiss as not being a real person. There’s also a bizarre collection of modern day heroes and film characters painted onto the walls. Very strange indeed.

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

Surrounding the 'White temple' are, as usual, other smaller Wats and shrines. Here's a the rather beautiful base of a wishing well. Don't be fooled by the clarity, this is actually underwater.

Surrounding the ‘White temple’ are, as usual, other smaller Wats and shrines. Here’s a the rather beautiful base of a wishing well. Don’t be fooled by the clarity, this is actually underwater.

White temple Chang Rai

White temple Chang Rai

White temple Chang Rai

As ever, it’s impossible to recount the entirety of the past few days (my posts are already increasing in length by the day) So I’ll skip over the cashew nut factory and my miserable new head-cold and will leave Chiang Mai for next time.

Having said that, who knew that cashew nuts grew on trees underneath cashew ‘apples’?!

Cashew nuts

 

Advertisements

These Streets

Image

It’s amazing what you can achieve in just a day. I feel like I’m now pretty familiar with down-town Yangon. I’ve spent the majority of the day navigating through markets which are along all of the major streets. At first I was a little hesitant but today I didn’t hold back on the street food. The trouble is, I know the vendors don’t really want to be accosted by somebody who doesn’t speak a word of their language – My tactic was brandishing some money at them and pointing!

Yangon street market

Image

Image

The birds/dogs/assorted vermin were having an absolute field day.

The birds/dogs/assorted vermin were having an absolute field day.

I tried lots of little bits and bobs – trying not too think too much about what was in them! There are loads of little fried things and pastries. There’s also the most ridiculous array of things I’ve never heard of before in my life, for example pomelos and custard apples.

Image

Note the dragon fruit in the foreground here.

Image

These bizarre looking things are called ‘rambutans’ – beneath the anemone-like outer shell is a sweet white flesh very similar to a lychee.

Image

The large knobbly brown thing at the back is called a ‘durian fruit’ – very odd.

Image

Don’t be fooled by their egg-like appearance – the ‘yoke’ is actually just grease! They’re sort of fried batter things with seeds and chickpeas – actually pretty tasty despite the fact that they’re dripping in oil.

They eat their meals at really strange times here: Breakfast is 7:00-7:30, Lunch 11:30-12:00 and Supper 5:30-6:30. I sat down for my 12 o’ clock lunch at a tiny low table like you’d get in a toddler’s play area, as is the norm, and let the women cooking provide me with whatever they had on offer. It seemed to be a mix of two different kinds of noodle, rice, potato, some sort of cucumberesque veg cut like noodles itself, a stange sort of cheese,  fried shredded fish/shrimp, fried tofu and chilli. The brothy soup accompanied like yesterday– some sort of fishy/mushroom one this time…not my favourite but certainly interesting.

Image

Image

I headed down in the direction of Sula Pagoda – the second biggest in the city. There are eight shrines around each pagoda which represent the ‘eight’ days of the week. This is as Wednesday is split in two, according to their traditional astronomy.  In Myanmar, the day that you were born on is one of your most relevant defining features, believe it or not. In fact, in place of family/surnames they use the day you were born (or letters associated with this day). The English equivalent, for example, could result in my name being Sophie Friday.  Each day is given it’s own shrine to worship with it’s own animal. The 2nd of October 1992 was a Friday so my animal is the guinea pig and my shrine is at the north side of the Pagoda.

What’s yours? You can find out here http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/interactive/interactivetests/weekday.php – (Not so sure about that nursey rhyme – seems entirely unfair on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. However this Myanmar system also seems pretty unfair – needless to say on the mouse and guinea pig!) Use the table to work out your animal and planet!

Day Sign Direction Planet
Monday Tiger East Moon
Tuesday Lion South East Mars
Wednesday-morning Elephant without a tusk South Mercuty
Wednesday-afternoon Elephant with a tusk North West yahu
Thursday Mouse West Jupiter
Friday Guinea Pig North Venus
Saturday Dragon South West Satum
Sunday Ga-Lone (Mythical bird) North East Sun

Image

Image

Here are two other people born on Friday – pouring water as a sign of respect and cleansing on the Buddha and the guinea pig.

The markets seem even more exciting at night. The downside, however, are the large rats running all over the place. People must have wondered why I kept jumping into the air spasmodically.

DSCF0092

Image

At night the city’s Pagodas light up like giant beacons.

Yangon night market

Someone was frying lobsters here!

Sula pagoda at night

Gold on the Ceiling

Image

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” – Buddha

So I managed to sort out my Myanmar visa and that evening headed off on my flight – panicking that I would have to do the same for my Vietnamese visa; All of my organisation seems to have been ripped to shreds! However, I’m now celebrating my victory over this mess whilst I can (i.e. before something else goes wrong) as I managed to find the Vietnamese embassy in Yangon and have sorted that out too. Phew! I have also managed to fit in an incredible amount of sightseeing.

Yangon is a breathtakingly beautiful city – a mixture of old British colonial architecture, tropical foliage mingled in and around the buildings, stalls, street food, markets and religious buildings –  largely dominated by the stunningly decorative Buddhist ‘pagodas’ scattered throughout. Buddhist Monasteries are everywhere – monks wander serenely around the city and the locals, namely the men, wear traditional yongi (like lap-laps) which further adds to the vibrant atmosphere.

Karaweik Palace on Lake Kandawgyi

Karaweik Palace on Lake Kandawgyi

Small Buddha Shrine at Botataung Pagoda. These small statues are for visitors to pour water on, showing their respect, as water symbolises the 'nectar' of Buddha's teachings.

Small Buddha Shrine at Botataung Pagoda. These small statues are for visitors to pour water on, showing their respect, as water symbolises the ‘nectar’ of Buddha’s teachings.

Shwedagon Pagoda has got to be one of the tourist highlights of Asia. It’s a bit early on in the game to be making such sweeping statements, I know, but the vast scale of each elaborately decorated temple is just extraordinary. There’s an entire village purely made of Pagodas, temples and shrines with the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda in the centre – at 99 metres high it dominates the skyline of the city and has relics of the last four Buddhas enshrined within. It’s crown is embellished with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and other precious stones.(I was told this information by an elderly monk who then proceeded to give me his prayer beads which was rather heart-warming.) What’s more, according to legend the Pagoda has been around for more than 2600 years. The 6th-10th centuries are more likely but still, pretty impressive.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Giant Buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

One thing that took a little getting used to is that all foot wear needs to be removed before entering any sort of pagoda or temple. Even small little areas with a tiny shrine don’t allow it. It’s a complete reversal from the societal norms back at home where I’ve been asked to leave a supermarket due to my bare feet. Imagine walking into a cathedral at home with no shoes on.

Again, it’s difficult to grasp the scale of this reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda - 65 meters long and 16 meters high.

Again, it’s difficult to grasp the scale of this reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda – 65 meters long and 16 meters high.

There’s a fantastically lively night-time food market going on all the way down the main road near my hostel. The number of fruit and vegetables that I’ve never seen before in my life is outstanding. I haven’t quite plucked up the courage to try the proper street food yet – largely due to a complete incapacity to communicate with the vendors, but being vegetarian doesn’t exactly facilitate things either. However, I did try out authentic ‘Myanmar cuisine’ for lunch. It seemed like a sort of hybrid between thai and indian:

Basically, when you arrive you’re presented with a plate of rice, a bowl of some sort of broth soup (let’s not lie – it was probably chicken) and some sauces and salad stuff (ginger, something that resembled cucumber and I’ve no idea about the rest),  then you proceed to the cooking area and ask point at different curries or vegetables that you want. Quite fun!

Basically, when you arrive you’re presented with a plate of rice, a bowl of some sort of broth soup (let’s not lie – it was probably chicken) and some sauces and salad stuff (ginger, something that resembled cucumber and I’ve no idea about the rest), then you proceed to the cooking area and ask point at different curries or vegetables that you want. Quite fun!

One of the traits that make this city so unique is the total absence of tourism. Apparently tourism has really taken off this year. That must simply be relative to beforehand as I barely came across a single tourist today and there was certainly no evidence of ‘westernisation’. Definitely no McDonalds here kids.

A small Buddhist shrine along the board walk of Lake Kandawgyi. Yet another quiet spot to get away from the hustle of down-town.

A small Buddhist shrine along the board walk of Lake Kandawgyi. Yet another quiet spot to get away from the hustle of down-town.