Monday, March 31, 2014

March 26th – An Epic Train Trip To Nowhere

Unfortunately our late night in the Vista Bar meant that our grand plans to go to the Shwedigon never materialised, so instead we got up at a reasonable hour to embark on a very different Rangoon experience – catching the circular train around Rangoon's suburbs. The journey starts at the Central Station and then goes in a giant circle taking three hours, through 37 stations taking you north of the city centre, into the countryside, and then round the other side of town, back down to Central Station.

We caught a cab to the station (no cab ride costs more than $3 in the city centre), and bought our tickets for this alternative tourist experience, for the grand sum of $1 each. For that kind of money, this certainly wasn't a luxury experience – the trains have two rows of hard seats facing each other, open sides and no doors, and crucially no toilet (which, on a hot a sweaty day when you're trying to keep yourself hydrated, can become a bit of a problem after shake, rattle and rolling along for a couple of hours) – but, I don't think it is possible to have better value in the city, because the ride provides an amazing insight into daily life in and around Rangoon.

To some people, going round in a circle for 3 hours might sound pretty boring, but here in Rangoon, there's just so much to see along the sides of the tracks. It's staggering how many people live alongside these railway lines, in basic shacks with no utilities, where the railway line is the playground of the many children, a place to dry your clothes, a place to cook your food, and a place just to sit and watch the world go by. Unfortunately, the track is also a place to dump your rubbish and god knows whatever human waste is generated by these dwellings, and it soon became apparent that Burma has a significant problem to face in dealing with its refuse situation.

It's easy to think that the people living in this poverty are living a fairly wretched existence, but we saw no signs of malnutrition or despair – just people living fairly basic lives who were happy to smile, wave, and say hello to us as we passed them by. Our fellow passengers who came and went (who else would go the whole way round, apart from us strange tourists?), were also very friendly (even if most communication had to be by sign language), and fortunately, the train wasn't too crowded, so we could spread out and keep as cool as possible.

As we left the city centre, the rubbish alongside became less, and the houses slightly better organised. At most stations, there were people walking up and down selling food to the passengers, and then, half way along, we had the most amazing spectacle of the lot – a full blown food market on the tracks all around us, absolutely packed with people and stalls selling all kinds of fruit and veg. It was like a scene from the middle ages.

We then passed into rural scenery and rice fields which felt a million miles away from the clamour of Rangoon, and slowly things got more built up again as we headed back to town. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even if the comfort levels were pretty basic – the whole ride really gave us an absolutely amazing slice of life along the way.

After emptying our bursting bladders, we headed to a nice restaurant where I had possibly the hottest curry of my life (I'm not looking forward to the after-effects of that!), before heading to the very disappointing National Museum. This cavernous and atmosphere-free modern building had a pretty scanty and dry collection of artefacts – only really enlivened by the royal throne that the British had stolen from Mandalay after they annexed Burma in the 1880s. It seems like the country's culture budget has been entirely channelled to its religious monuments rather than this museum.

Finally, we headed back to the Scott Market to have a brief look around and catch the shuttle back to the ship. As ever, Burma has been utterly captivating – as Rudyard Kipling said, "it's quite unlike any land you know about".

I can't wait to come back here again on the 2016 World Cruise – not only to see some more, but also to see how much it's changed. I just hope it doesn't change too much.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

March 25th – Day and Night in Rangoon

Rangoon is increasingly in gridlock – the economy has been booming since the Generals loosened their grip on society, and the nation ceased being a pariah on the world stage, which means plenty more cars on the roads (on a road system in need of serious investment). However, the Generals haven't been willing to repeal the ban on motorbikes on the streets of Rangoon, which would surely alleviate some of the congestion. The result is that the Shuttle Bus ride in from the port into the centre of town, which used to take 45 minutes, can now easily take double that time. Which is why we decided to book a hotel in the centre of Rangoon for the night, to avoid wasting three hours on a Shuttle Bus – an excellent decision.

We caught the first Shuttle Bus into town, and even though it's a slow and bumpy ride, there's always plenty to see on the way – even in Rangoon's small satellite towns, there are some unfeasibly large and OTT temples, while life is lived out on the street here, loads of people in traditional dress walking to market, to temple or to work.

Once we'd finally reached Rangoon, we walked down its network of crumbling streets in the colonial district, passing once-magnificent neo-classical buildings with peeling plasterwork and dilapidated facades. This place must have been very impressive in the early 20th century, but decades of neglect since the generals took over, have left it in serious need of a facelift. As if to prove the sorry state of the infrastructure, I managed to semi-fall down a hole in the pavement (having carefully warned the passengers in my lectures about the dangers of tripping on the crumbling pavements!) - I cut my hand and bruised various parts of my body, and most importantly, bruised my ego.

The damage was superficial, so I dusted myself down, and we headed down to the Sule Pagoda, Rangoon's second-most important Pagoda, sitting rather incongruously in the middle of a busy roundabout. However, the peaceful atmosphere inside made for a marked contrast with the frenetic streets outside, as we tip-toed our way barefoot over the roasting hot floor.

Across from the Pagoda, we went to find some more shade in Rangoon's main square (it was well over 100F/40C) – the architecture surrounding us, summed up Rangoon's history. The glittering spire of the Pagoda competed with the spires of a Christian church; the Indian Raj style of the law courts, looked across at the 1920s Neo-classical/Burmese mish-mash of the Town Hall; while the tall obelisk of the Independence Monument proclaimed Burma's new start after the British, and a couple of new skyscrapers (hopefully) proclaimed Burma's new start after the Generals.

We then went to get Tracy's camera cleaned – fortunately, Rangoon is a city where all the shops selling a particular item or service all gather together in the same street, so we had plenty of choice. In spite of a few qualms about leaving the expensive camera with people we'd never met, the service was quick, efficient and cheap. Rangoon does appear to be developing a harder edge now that capitalism is taking off, but people generally appear to be pretty honest.

We went for lunch at a restaurant on the 21st story of one of Rangoon's tallest buildings – the food wasn't up to much, but it was air-conditioned, and the views were magnificent.
Judging by the state of its buildings, Rangoon has clearly seen better days; but, also judging by the construction work and the vibrancy on the streets, Rangoon clearly has better days to come.

From here, we walked up to the Scott Market, which has also developed a slightly harder commercial edge in the last 12 months and prices have definitely gone up, but it was still a more relaxed atmosphere than the tourist markets of Vietnam and Thailand.

By now, we were in need of a shower, so we headed for our hotel, which was basic, but clean and efficient. Most importantly, it was close by to Rangoon's star attraction, the Shwedigon Pagoda, where we headed for sunset. This enormous, shimmering Pagoda is covered in something like 60 tonnes of gold and topped with huge glittering diamonds, so as the sun goes down, the floodlights come on, and the worshippers light their candles, it assumes a glowing, magical magnificence. I waxed lyrical about Shwedigon in my blog last year (March 4th 2013), so I won't go on about it now, but suffice it to say, it was a joyous, sensory overload walking around this amazing spectacle.

By now, we were hungry, so we headed over to the excellent Pandonmar Restaurant for a lovely, tasty, and remarkably good value meal in the garden of an old colonial villa, before heading for a few nightcaps at the Vista Bar. We'd expected this rooftop bar to be on top of a 30-storey building, but it was only on the 4th floor (seeing as there was no lift, maybe that wasn't a bad thing!). But, what it lacked in height, it more than made up for with the views – the bar certainly lived up to its name with some amazing vistas of the Shwedigon, positively glowing against the dark night sky. It was like the whole thing was on fire.

A spectacular end to a spectacular day!

March 24th – Back in Burma

It's been a year since my last visit to Burma, and already I can see big changes – the roads are busier than ever (to the point of almost gridlock), more modern buildings are being built, and the people have got more interested in the tourist dollar. But, thankfully, some things never change – the devotion to Buddhism is as strong as ever (something which gives the people a gentle, caring demeanour, and has endowed the country with an amazing array of dazzling temples to visit), while the wonderfully friendly people continue to be Burma's greatest asset.

Today I joined the ship's tour to historic Bago, one of the country's old capitals, that's about a 2-hour drive from the port on the river, upstream from Rangoon. As we battled the traffic along the bumpy roads, our journey was broken up by a visit to the Kyakatwine Monastery, where we got to see the novice monks in their saffron robes line up to get their lunch (they're not allowed to eat after 12pm). The sight of these shaven-headed, barefoot youngsters is always a photogenic sight, and it was fascinating to see them wolf down their meals – some serene and monk-like, and some cheeky and child-like.

Next we went to a poignant war cemetery from the Second World War, where over 6,000 Allied servicemen were buried – most of them in their early 20s, died fighting the Japanese to take back this remote part of the British Empire. The British pulled out of Burma, 3 years after the end of the war.

On reaching Bago, we went into temple overload, visiting the shimmering golden Shwemawdaw Pagoda (a smaller, but still impressive version of Rangoon's Shwedigon); then visiting Burma's largest reclining Buddha, the Shwethalyaung Buddha (as big as it's impossible to pronounce); and then the four-faced Kyaik Pun Pagoda, which looked like it had just been completed yesterday, rather than in the 15th century. As ever in Burma, the size, opulence and expense of these Pagodas when compared to the general poverty of the people, seems a little incongruous, but maybe the people prefer to be rich in religion rather than material things. I guess that it suits the Generals if people concentrate on religious devotion rather than on political and economic matters.

Our final stop was at Bago's teeming market – this was aimed at the locals rather than tourists, so we weren't being seen as big dollar signs. Instead, people seemed genuinely pleased to see us, and gave us bright smiles whenever we called out hello or "mingalabar" to them.

A fabulous, hot, and exhausting day – this is why we come to Burma, "The Golden Land".

Thursday, March 27, 2014

March 22nd – Riding Elephants in Phuket

From our short time here in Phuket, you get the impression that this beautiful holiday island is becoming a bit of a victim of its own success. The people I encountered appear to have lost some of the warmth that usually makes visiting Thailand such a joy – I guess that 40 years of high impact tourism (a tourist trade that appears to be gathering pace now that the Russian market has discovered Phuket in a big way), has meant that people have grown a little weary of us visitors.

I took a trip that visited the Buddhist temple at Chalong, and then went on an elephant safari. The Wat at Chalong was the typical exuberant extravaganza of soaring spires, coloured glass, and loads of gold Buddhas in various reposes, but it seemed to be more aimed at us photo-snapping tourists than at the local worshippers, who must have been outnumbered 20 to one.

The elephant safari was good fun, even though it felt like a bit of a tourist factory churning through the coach parties – any ride on these magnificent lumbering beasts is always entertaining, and then seeing the elephants do various tricks with footballs, darts, basketballs etc, showed you just how intelligent they are, even if I'm always left with a little pang of guilt that they're only here for my entertainment. Nevertheless, the elephants looked healthy and well-cared for, and there was none of the less dignified tricks and dancing, or elephants reduced to mindless rocking, than I've experienced elsewhere on the island.

It will be interesting to see what direction Phuket takes in the next decade – will it continue to head down the road of the mainstream tourist market, and introduce ever-tackier entertainment, or will it head upmarket, and go after a more refined (and more lucrative) market?

March 21st – Manic Medan

Today we were visiting a place that's not visited very much by cruise ships, nor is it really on the tourist map for that matter – the port of Belawan, in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Our guide today told us that the Indonesian media had recently voted the town of Belawan as the dirtiest town in Indonesia (which is quite an achievement in a place like Indonesia), so we were glad that we were getting out of there and travelling to the city of Medan (the capital of Sumatra).

To be honest, since the war, Medan's has grown uncontrollably into a chaotic city of 2.5 million people, suffering from terrible traffic problems, a crumbling infrastructure, and much poverty visible out there on the crowded streets, while the tremendously hot and humid conditions don't help to make it an easier place to visit. But, having said all that, it's not a charmless place, and there are a few historic and cultural gems to discover out there in the urban jungle.

Most of the gems date from a period at the start of the 20th century, when this was one of South East Asia's boom towns, as the Dutch colonists started up lucrative tobacco plantations on the region's fertile soil, and plenty of Chinese workers and businessmen flocked to the city to make their fortune. Judging by the collection of those crumbling colonial buildings that have managed to survive the decades since the war, there must have been fortunes to be made here – however, the years of neglect and unsympathetic town planning (if you can believe that there was a "plan" to the city's sprawl), have left them as crumbling relics of a long lost golden age. Our fatalistic guide gave us a few depressing examples of the rampant corruption that have been holding back the development of his city, so I guess that it was against that background that we have to judge the urban appeal of Medan.

Actually, one of the joys of visiting a place like this, is to dig out the old colonial relics, and place them against the context of the city as a whole, sitting next to falling down buildings, or ugly concrete blocks that should be the ones that need to be demolished. We went into Medan's most splendid colonial building, the old Harrison and Crosfield building, that now houses the offices of London Sumatra (a British rubber company), to get a sense of Medan's former colonial splendour, and to see what was the first ever electric lift in Sumatra. Although it's still a functioning office building, when they heard that we'd come from London specially to see it (or so we told them), they were more than happy to give us a ride up to the top of the building, in this cranking old Victorian lift.

We sampled the exotic atmosphere of the Shri Marriammam Temple – a Hindu temple that caters for the significant Indian community who have been present for the last 150 years or so; but the biggest group attracted here were the Chinese, a minority who make up about 5% of the population these days, but continue to dominate the local economy. To find out more, we paid a visit to probably Medan's most interesting building, the Tjong A Fie House, the once-opulent home to Medan's richest businessman at the turn of the century. Like the rest of the city, the building's clearly seen better days, as his family have lost most of his fortune, but its size and the few furnishings left, show you that he must have been pretty wealthy.

After this, we headed for lunch, where our table was loaded up with an unbelievable amount of dishes – at least thirty different plates appeared at once on the table. Apparently, the way they do things here is that you just pick what dishes you like, leave what you don't want, and they only charge you for those you've started. This means that you get served an array of luke-warm food that's probably sat on a few other people's table first, and you just take lucky dip with flavours and potential subsequent stomach problems! As it turned out, it was all pretty good, and no-one suffered any after-effects.

While the city as a whole isn't particularly attractive, its best feature has got to be its people – everywhere we went, people were coming up to say hello to us, and constantly wanted to have their photo taken with us, we felt like celebrities. The giggling schoolgirls at the Royal Palace were desperate to have their photos taken with me (I felt like a giant next to them), while the ladies at the Grand Mosque wanted their photo taken with Tracy (in her red headscarf). With such lovely people, you can only hope that Medan can get its act together and give them a city worthy of them.

All in all, we had a really fun day in a city that you need to make a bit of an effort to enjoy spending time in – I'm glad we made the effort.