Thursday, March 31, 2016

March 28th – Battling The Traffic in Rangoon

It was a struggle to get out of bed this morning after our exhausting trip to Bagan, but it would have felt like a wasted day if we hadn't seen at least a little of Rangoon/Yangon. In a country where the economy is expanding rapidly (admittedly from a very low point), and where the political landscape is changing by the day, we wanted to see what affect this had had on Rangoon, the country's largest city.

The biggest affect seems to be that the traffic here has got even worse in the last couple of years (I would scarcely have thought it possible after our last traffic-filled visit in 2014). There are obviously more cars on the road as the economy improves, but there seems to have been zero investment in infrastructure, which means that the city is fast (or slowly) approaching constant gridlock, so that a shuttle bus ride that should have taken an hour, in fact took 2 frustrating hours.

Fortunately, the views from the coach window are pretty good – life is lived out on the street here in Burma, so there's always something going on by the side of the road.

All we really wanted to achieve today was to visit the Shwedigon Pagoda, the country's holiest (and most extravagant temple) – which was just as well, because after that journey, there wasn't much time left for anything else. I've visited it a couple of times, but only at night, so I wanted to see it in daytime.

We quickly discovered that visiting at mid-day is not the ideal time to visit, unless you have asbestos feet. The temple itself looks great, glowing in the bright sunshine, but the floor around it has been superheated by the sun, and it feels as if you're walking on hot coals, as you tip-toe around in your bare feet. The white marble tiles get hot enough (you can just about touch them for a second before your feet start to burn), but the ceramic tiles that intersperse the marble are like frying pans that have been on the hob for the last hour.

As you might expect, it didn't make for the most relaxed temple viewing, as we hopped about, sprinting from shade to shade. Even the locals, who must have much tougher feet than us, were running around the temple rather than walking serenely as they do in the evening. I resorted to pouring water over the soles of my feet, and I could swear that I saw them steaming!

In the few moments where it didn't feel like our feet were going to blister up and disintegrate, the sheer golden magnificence of the Shwedigon just took your breath away – it's an amazing concoction of gold, diamonds and precious stones, and all around it are so many Buddha images (in every possible state of repose imaginable), that it all felt like there were more Buddhas than worshippers.

At the end of it all, I have never been more relieved to put my shoes on, and we just about had time for a bit of exploring of the chaotic streets of central Rangoon. The poor state of the pavements and the pervasive rubbish on the streets were another sign of the lack of investment in the infrastructure here, but the number of building sites and amount of bustling commerce we saw, were surely a sign of a city on the up. The incomparable Shwedigon will always be a breathtaking sight – I wonder what the rest of the city around it will look like in a couple of years time?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

March 26th & 27th – Blown Away By Breathtaking Bagan

Bagan in Burma/Myanmar has to be one of the most evocative sites you can visit in South East Asia. A vast, atmospheric dusty plain, dotted with over 3,000 temples and stupas - all that remains of a once-great medieval city of over 100,000 people. This is my second visit here, so I'm not going to go into too much detail about the temples themselves (see my blog entries for March 5th and March 6th 2013 

Of course, the sublime temples and the spectacular views haven't changed since my last visit – how could they, when these are some of the most timeless views you can imagine? But, what has changed in the last 3 years, are the attitudes of the people (much more open since democracy has returned, or seems to be returning), and the numbers of tourists (Burma is no longer off-the-beaten track any more). That means that on our visit to a market just outside of Bagan, we were deluged by salespeople, who followed us around, almost demanding that we bought their wares. But, in spite of their persistence, there was an underlying friendliness and sense of humour that reassured me that the people weren't losing their traditional warm Burmese character.

We had travelled to Bagan escorting a group of 47 passengers from our berth in Rangoon. Thick fog had delayed our early morning departure from the port by almost an hour, which left us with a heart-stopping ride along the city's bumpy and chaotic roads to the airport, eventually getting us to the airport at 7.50 – our scheduled flight was at 8.00am! But, this is a country where rules can be bent, so somehow, we managed to check in, go through security and still pick up the flight on time. I still don't know how it happened!

This hurdle accomplished, it was all about getting in amongst those enigmatic temples. The thought when you're there, surrounded by these amazing pieces of ghostly architecture, is what an obscene amount of effort, time and money must have gone into producing such an enormous array of temples, temples that no-one would worship at for the next 700 years. In a country where the levels of poverty are still worryingly high, this historic waste of money seemed absolutely ludicrous.

But, what can't be denied is the temple's mysterious beauty – we saw them in the daytime, at sunset, and at sunrise, and they never failed to impress.

With 2 starts at or before 5am, this was an exhausting trip, but the wonderful sights were enough to keep us going. We stayed in an absolutely gorgeous hotel (of course, in amongst the temples), so Tracy had one of her most memorable birthdays on our second day.

If you haven't been to Burma before, come soon, before it gets deluged in tourists.

March 24th – A Quick Visit to Phuket

What do you do if you only have 4 and a half hours on the beautiful Thai island of Phuket? Of course, the island is most famous for its beaches and resorts, but there isn't really much time for relaxing on a half-day visit like this – especially when the taxi drivers here hold you to ransom, and make it an expensive trial to even get out of the port on your own.
So, most people joined the ship's tours – either on a boat trip to the beautiful landscapes and seascapes of Phang Nga Bay, or on an elephant ride, or, like me, on a panoramic trip around the island, to see a few of its highlights. 
First stop, was to visit "The Big Buddha", a huge, gleaming white statue that certainly lives up to its name (by virtue of being both "Big" and a "Buddha"). The Buddha only began to be constructed in 2003, and while the main statue is complete, the rest of the complex is a big building site. To me, although this is obviously a religiously-based site, the whole thing appears to have been constructed to give us tourists something "cultural" to see (other than beach culture). Everyone there seemed to be foreign tourists, and there didn't appear to be any local worshippers there.
Then we headed to Phuket Town, which I think is the most interesting and most genuine place on the island to visit. This place has retained at least some of its original Thai/Chinese character (over one-third of the island's population are ethnic Chinese), and it's not yet been given totally over to the tourist trade.
We walked down its main streets, lined with the same kind of historic shophouses that mark the centre of Penang and Singapore (it's traditional trading partners on the Straits of Malacca). We visited an atmospheric Chinese temple – built for the locals to worship at, rather than for the sun-worshippers to gawp at, and we attempted to cool off in a local cafe.
But, sadly, that's about as much as you can see in a blisteringly hot morning on Phuket – a tantalising glimpse of an island that seems to be struggling with the balance between tourism and real life.

March 23rd – Avoiding The Heat in Penang

On an absolutely sweltering day in Penang, it was great to be greeted off the ship by some generous friends who had kindly volunteered to take us around their home town, and show us its sights – most importantly, travelling around in their air-conditioned car. Even they admitted it was way too hot for them, and they confessed to not knowing how they were able to survive their childhoods in the days before air-conditioning.

We've explored much of Penang's colonial and diverse ethnic heritage on previous visits, so most interesting for us was to get a feel for the modern reality of living on this prosperous and cosmopolitan Malaysian island. Driving around, it was obvious from the lines of factories of all the hi-tech companies based here, that the island's economy is doing well. Although, we were told that other developing countries (like Vietnam and Indonesia) are trying their best to lure away those companies to build their factories elsewhere, with offers of generous tax breaks.

Our first stop was at the Snake Temple, where our host, John, likes to make sure that his visitors are subjected to the ordeal of having a huge slithering python draped around their neck, with a poisonous viper (hopefully de-fanged) plonked on their head. As I survived this trial by snake a couple of years ago, we decided that it was Tracy's turn to be snaked – I don't know if the picture captures her sheer terror, but you could virtually smell the fear.

We then headed into the centre of the island to visit the enormous Kek Lok Si Temple, a bizarre confection of a place, full of colourful temples and exotic pagodas sprawling up the side of a hill. If you're a successful Chinese businessman, you donate money for yet more buildings to be added to the complex, which means that the whole thing is an ongoing building project, constantly being added to with grander and ever more gaudy religious buildings.

By then, we were overheating, so it was a relief to head back into Penang for a delicious lunch in a Nyonya Restaurant (with air-conditioning). Nyonya food is the distinctive cuisine of the Peranakan culture that's peculiar to the former British colony of the Straits Settlements (in Penang, Malacca and Singapore), blending Chinese cooking styles, with Malay and Indian elements – a perfect illustration of the cosmopolitan influences on the island. The end result was absolutely delicious.

Next, we went to see John and Paik See's lovely apartment at the top of a modern block overlooking the sea. All around were lots of other high-end apartment blocks that attest to a booming property market in Penang. The contrast of these gleaming high-rise modern apartment blocks (that could have come from South Florida), and the streets of low-rise, historic shophouses of central Penang was an interesting one. But, this is a place that clearly enjoys its contrasts and diversity - where modern sits comfortably alongside the historic, where Chinese, Indians and Malays live happily side-by-side, where the cuisine blends the best influences from all around the East.

Finally, before it was time to say goodbye, we headed to the famous E&O Hotel for a bit of colonial splendour (at prices significantly cheaper than its colonial contemporary, Raffles in Singapore). As the warm breezes blew in from the Straits of Malacca, you got the impression that Penang must be a pretty good place to live – as long as you have air conditioning! Another wonderful day.

PS. Yesterday in Port Klang, a combination of laziness and an early lecture meant that I didn't take the 75 minute journey into Kuala Lumpur – instead I opted for the trip to the enormous Shopping Mall at Klang, where Tracy did her annual retail therapy, and I had a nice lunch. You can't be adventurous every day!