The Importance Of Being Idle

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

“It is important from time to time to slow down, to go away by yourself, and simply be.”
 – Eileen Caddy

I’ve become so infuriated by organised group activities and general ‘tourism’ that today I decided to break away from the gang. We arrived into Vang Vieng in the monsoon rains last night, so this morning I indulged in a lie in, which was absolutely glorious. Eventually emerging at around eleven, I donned my hiking boots for the first time since leaving home and strode out in a general ‘countryside’ direction.

Vang Vieng, being essentially a backpacker haven, is mostly known for tubing and kayaking tours. I don’t find either option remotely appealing, largely due to the fact that I’ve done both a number of times with far more freedom and with far fewer crowds. One particularly fond memory is of heading out across the French vineyards near Carcassonne, one summer, fully equipped with all of the inflatables from the pool. We floated down the river on assorted lilos and rubber rings, occasionally getting caught on the odd bit of shallow water, having a hilariously good time. In comparison, heading out with three tour guides, full instructions, routes mapped, proper equipment etc seems somewhat less spontaneous.

Exploring the local area, however, was incredibly rewarding. The general landscape out of town is absolutely breath-taking. Limestone ‘karsts’ are dotted about the place, very much like Ha Long Bay but with vividly green rice paddies replacing the ocean. You can wander out on the magical little paths through the paddies, with precarious bamboo bridges and rivers that you have to jump across (almost inevitably resulting in mud splattering all the way up your legs). Mesmerising arrays of butterflies and dragonflies are chasing and courting each other all around you and the soothing noise of the running water pouring out of bamboo structures creates the epitome of tranquillity.

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch...

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch…

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Vang Vieng, Laos

After ambling down a dirt road for a while I decided to follow a very poorly translated signpost which pointed towards a cave “where you bath”. This took me down a tiny little path winding through banana plantations and lush wilderness which was actually a little disconcerting as there wasn’t a soul in sight and the tight turns resulted in very poor visibility. What’s more, the screeches of the crickets were quite alarming; they were exactly like that horrible sound you make when you scrape cutlery across an empty plate. Round one tight corner I spotted an incredibly bizarre snake – around a metre and a half long but so thin that it can’t have been more than a centimetre or two wide. It reared up, with some little creature in its mouth that was screaming its heart out, and darted quickly into the jungle. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but having looked online the closest I’ve come is a ‘painted bronzeback’. By this stage, my stomach was obstinately reminding me that it was lunchtime, so I decided to give up on the rather unnerving trail and head back to the open space!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road - thankfully they were very docile!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road – thankfully they were very docile!

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Vang Vieng , Laos

Rambling about the place was such a fantastic opportunity to get a sneak peek into the genuine lives of the locals: families gathered in the dark of their bamboo huts around a pot of steamed rice, farmers tending the cattle and paddies, little kids splashing about in the mud whilst the fishermen work their traditional nets in the rivers, young boys proudly sporting their smart uniforms as they cycled to and from school. One boy, perched up on a tiny little branch at the top of a tree, like a sparrow, shouting out ‘sa bai dee’ (hello), jumped down and ran over to me to offer his half eaten guava, which was rather adorable. Such a shame that I was unable to communicate in any way – hello and thank-you are the extent of my Laos linguistic abilities, unsurprisingly!

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Vang Vieng River

Laos fisherman

Vang Vieng road

 

Boy in tree Vang Vieng

I’m getting to grips with the local street food increasingly as time passes – the basic concept initially was just entirely foreign to me and nobody explained it, so it’s taken a while! You get the basic ‘canvas’ of the meal given to you, most often rice noodle soup, and then you’re able to choose all the flavours and seasoning yourself from the things available to you on the table – what I initially mistook for a salad is pot of fresh herbs: here it’s mint and a strange lemony tasting leaf that looks a little like basil. Then there are sauces – in this case an additional delicious thick peanut/chilli sauce, chillis, garlic, curry powder etc

The basic 'noodle soup' has morphed into varying forms in the different countries.  Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

The basic ‘noodle soup’ has morphed into varying forms in the different countries. Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

Rice Paddies, Vang Vieng, Laos

 

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These Streets

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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

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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.

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Note the dragon fruit in the foreground here.

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

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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“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.

In This City

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known. “
 – Oscar Wilde

Anna, Hannah and I have spent the last couple of days getting acquainted with Brisbane. We’ve visited a man-made beach in the middle of the city, done laps of the local markets to gather up the free tasters, wandered around the city popping into ‘tat’ shops and sauntered around the beautiful botanic gardens with the cockatoos and sacred ibis filling the skies. My personal favourite has been the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art: Fantastically curated, with some really exciting exhibitions due to the ‘seventh Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’. I particularly was taken with ‘Raqib Shaw’, a London-based Indian artist who creates fantastically extravagant fantasy paintings which encapsulate a sense of Japanese delicacy whilst conveying incredibly graphic scenes. His work is incredibly original; He uses stain-glass paint, enamel, glitter and rhinestone which he manipulates with a porcupine quill to create the most incredibly intricate pieces on a grand scale. His large ‘Paradise Lost’ below understandably took him ten years to complete. If you have a moment it’s definitely worth checking him out: http://whitecube.com/artists/raqib_shaw/, although it’s impossible to get across the sense of the grandeur or the texture of the paintings through a photograph or a print.

On a slightly less cultured note, I also accidentally kicked a baby in the face. Not a proud moment. Seriously though, who expects there to be babies all over the floor in an art gallery – Of course I wasn’t watching my feet I was looking at the walls! Luckily the baby was absolutely fine and the mother was very understanding…How embarrassing!

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