Going for a walk

 A proud grandma outside her house in Pankam village, near Hsipaw

A proud grandma outside her house in Pankam village, near Hsipaw

My father is keen on walking, and when I was a child in the UK we did it a lot. Mostly up mountains, with essential elements being gorse, bogs, driving rain and periods of being lost. In Dad's eyes you hadn't had a successful day out unless you returned cold, wet, scratched and two hours later than anticipated. If I remember, we wore wellies (gumboots) in winter and plimsolls in summer, although Dad had a pair of leather walking boots that may or may not have been comfortable. 

The joy of walking has stayed with me, although I've noticed in the almost 50 years since I went up my first hill that "walking" has become something you do to the shop at the top of the road. These days enthusiasts "tramp" (in New Zealand), "hike" (North America), "bushwalk" (Australia). Some people even "ramble" in a twee fashion (England). 

 Scenery during our Hsipaw trek. The village is where we spent the night, the area is a big tea growing area. 

Scenery during our Hsipaw trek. The village is where we spent the night, the area is a big tea growing area. 

In Southeast Asia you "trek" like a Sherpa, so that's what we did in Myanmar. Twice. And those two (albeit guided) walks were among the best experiences of the trip. The countryside was spectacular, the villages interesting, and the people we met friendly. The food was good, the company enthusiastic, the guides knowledgeable. In a country where many of the more remote rural areas are still closed to foreigners, trekking was a great way to see life outside the cities. 

 Our Hsipaw guide Sai posing with a large stick whose function wasn't totally clear

Our Hsipaw guide Sai posing with a large stick whose function wasn't totally clear

 These lovely woven panels are typical of houses in this area. The photogenic kid is extra. Below, a small boy eating breakfast in a similar woven house. And below that, the same house again, actually a small shop - zoomed out. I just think they are so pretty.

These lovely woven panels are typical of houses in this area. The photogenic kid is extra. Below, a small boy eating breakfast in a similar woven house. And below that, the same house again, actually a small shop - zoomed out. I just think they are so pretty.

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trek shop.jpg

Our first trek was from Hsipaw, a small hill town northeast of Mandalay towards the Chinese border. Geoff and I abandoned Sam and joined four other travellers (English, Swiss, and American) and a guide for walk through Shan and Palaung villages and even some Shan rebel checkpoints. (One Shan soldier we passed was on duty holding his young baby, so I suspect no one was expecting much military action.) We covered 20-odd kilometres each day, with the first day involving marching up to he top of the hill (Dad would have been pleased) and the second day marching down again.

 Our morning tea stop on day 1. 

Our morning tea stop on day 1. 

 The villages all have these small shrines at the entrance - to the Nats, or spirit Gods. A bad Nat can bring horrible luck - NEVER pee under a tree, for example, or the Nat of that tree will get you for sure. But good Nats can protect you and your family. The little shrines contain food, beds, even a mosquito net for the Nats.

The villages all have these small shrines at the entrance - to the Nats, or spirit Gods. A bad Nat can bring horrible luck - NEVER pee under a tree, for example, or the Nat of that tree will get you for sure. But good Nats can protect you and your family. The little shrines contain food, beds, even a mosquito net for the Nats.

 Cheerful village kids. Even before we gave them lollies. We justified it because they didn't ask...

Cheerful village kids. Even before we gave them lollies. We justified it because they didn't ask...

 Washing facilities at one house we passed. Pretty typical.

Washing facilities at one house we passed. Pretty typical.

We spent the night in the Palaung village of Pankam, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, with buffalo underneath and a long drop toilet in the garden. It was wonderful. Even the long drop.

 Buffalo in the back yard

Buffalo in the back yard

 Early morning in Pankam village. Not bad, huh?

Early morning in Pankam village. Not bad, huh?

 Tea growing - a family affair. The little kid at the back is helping dad turn the tea leaves. The younger one hasn't quite got the hang of it yet...

Tea growing - a family affair. The little kid at the back is helping dad turn the tea leaves. The younger one hasn't quite got the hang of it yet...

 Geoff chatting up some tea pickers

Geoff chatting up some tea pickers

 The homeward stretch - nearly back in Hsipaw. I can't resist pictures of rice fields and haystacks...

The homeward stretch - nearly back in Hsipaw. I can't resist pictures of rice fields and haystacks...

 Joining the locals in the hot springs at the end of the trek

Joining the locals in the hot springs at the end of the trek

Our second trip was from Nyaungshwe, near Inle lake. With 13 people, including reluctant teenage walkers, the pace was considerably slower, but the experience no less fabulous. And I have to say everyone was hugely stoical. I put lots of photos of this trek in my Christmas Day blog, but here are a couple more, just for the lols.

 Our lunch spot on the Inle Lake trek. The food was fabulous!

Our lunch spot on the Inle Lake trek. The food was fabulous!

 Arriving in Koung Soung - the end of a long day, mostly uphill!

Arriving in Koung Soung - the end of a long day, mostly uphill!

 Washing up facilities in Koung Soung village

Washing up facilities in Koung Soung village

 Samuel, Aye Zaw and Michelle making a nice cup of tea after dinner

Samuel, Aye Zaw and Michelle making a nice cup of tea after dinner

 Where we ended up when we got lost. Yes, even on a guided trek you can get lost...

Where we ended up when we got lost. Yes, even on a guided trek you can get lost...

Postscript: In memory of my childhood, I wore my 15 euro Greek trainers for our treks. They were pretty comfortable, and conveniently fell apart on the last day of the final trek. I threw them away and bought some faux Myanmar Adidas - sorry Oxdans - instead.

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Having a great day just messin' about on the river

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Travel is a contradictory process. You leave your country because you want to see things in other countries. But you want to see them as they would be if travellers hadn't visited. Which unless you are a Great Adventurer (which I'm not) is a problem. Another problem is that often the easiest way to find out what there is to see is to read guide books, which by their very nature point you in the direction of what everyone else is going to.

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Still, sometimes you do something that is the perfect balance between "packaged for the tourist" and "hardly anyone knows about it yet". Our Ayeyarwady Delta boat trip was such a thing. As I mentioned in my blog about Pathein, the area is relatively tourist free. But a search for "things to do in the Ayeyarwady Delta" revealed a Myanmar Times travel article, and contact details for John, billed as "a friendly, well-fed man with chubby cheeks and a gentle demeanour". John, the article said, had for the last few years (since it stopped being a crime to fraternise with foreigners) supplemented his income as an English teacher by running Ayeyarwady boat trips. 

 Locals heading to work

Locals heading to work

(Of course John is not his real name, but tourists (and I'm as bad as anyone) find "John" easier to recall than his Burmese name, which I can no longer remember.)

So I left a message for John and he appeared at the hotel on his motorbike to tell us about the tour, which was ridiculously cheap ($60 for a boat and a guide for the whole day), exclusive (no other tourists), and included all sorts of excitements as well as the boat trip itself - exploring villages, walking a bamboo bridge, visiting a noodle factory, and lunch.

 Me and my new hat testing out the bamboo bridge

Me and my new hat testing out the bamboo bridge

And it turned out to be all that was promised, and more. John is an excellent tour guide with very good English, the places we went were interesting and unspoilt by tourism, and the people we met almost embarrassingly friendly and welcoming. All in all, we had a lovely day, with that additional smug-at-doing-something-so-fun-that-isn't-in-the-Lonely-Planet bonus.

Here are some of the highlights:

- When we had asked what time we would leave, John had suggested 8am, but wasn't fazed when we wondered if it would be nice to see dawn over the river. (It's quite hot during the day in the delta region, even in winter, and the light's always better in the early morning.) So he and his friend arrived at the hotel on motorbikes at 5.30am, Geoff and I hopped on the back, and off we went in the dark. A bit chilly at that time of the day, but worth it when half an hour later it started getting light and the mist over the paddy fields was gorgeous. 

 Farmer in the early morning mist

Farmer in the early morning mist

As was the sunrise over the river.

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- For a while we pottered along little channels, with the odd house on the bank, and a few other boats. We'd expected fishermen, but apparently farming is more lucrative in the fertile delta region, so guys only fish when the mother-in-law says she needs something for dinner.

- Then we called in at a couple of small villages - each with a 200-300 houses, a pagoda or two, a school and some small shops and food stalls.

 Primary school kids stopping for a lunchtime snack

Primary school kids stopping for a lunchtime snack

 A fine gold pagoda for a tiny village

A fine gold pagoda for a tiny village

- Then, in the first village, we came across a wedding - a random stroke of luck for us. You can tell there's a wedding going on because of the MUSIC, which blares out at FULL VOLUME from speakers hired by (in this case) the groom's parents. You don't need an invite for a rural wedding in Myanmar; when they hear the music, everyone in the village puts on their best longyi and heads off. The event was modest, a widow marrying off her youngest son, but the little wooden house was decorated with offerings of bananas, coconut and pickled tea leaves for the spirits (called nats), and there was a screened-off bridal suite prepared for the couple's first night.

 Food for the nats, bedding for the newly weds

Food for the nats, bedding for the newly weds

There was also an awning outside with tables and chairs for guests. From what I can gather, all that's needed in traditional Myanmar society to make a wedding legal is for a husband and wife to let people from seven houses on either side of their house know about their decision (although I think these days you also have to sign a marriage certificate in front of a judge). But a wedding is always a good excuse for a shindig. The newly-married couple sat in the entrance way wearing their best longyis and greeting guests, pressing cigarettes and sweets into their hands.

 Feeling rather under-dressed

Feeling rather under-dressed

 Looking rather under-whelmed

Looking rather under-whelmed

 The kitchen - where the real party was going on

The kitchen - where the real party was going on

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To be honest, it looked like rather a dull way to spend your wedding, but in exchange, the couple got to receive money from the visitors, which was collected not by them, but by a couple of men sitting opposite, with the amounts noted in a book. Guests arrived in dribs and drabs throughout the morning, rather than at a specific time, and were served food by the groom's lovely mum and other family members. Visitors ate and chatted and then went home, and their places were taken by new arrivals. It was more like the office canteen at lunchtime than what we'd think of as a wedding. There was no alcohol we could see and no dancing or partying, though the DEAFENING MUSIC continued throughout. Geoff and I were treated like royalty, despite being far the most scruffily-dressed (not having anticipated a wedding!)

- Other highlights included having a cup of tea with a couple of lovely village women, who proudly showed off their grandchildren, and their family photos, mostly of husbands and sons doing their stint as a monk. It seems that sometimes a boy will do his time as a novice at the same as dad enrols as a full-blown monk. Mum can then make sure both get something decent to eat by delivering rice and curry into their alms bowl in the morning.

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aye monks.jpg
 This lovely woman didn't seem to mind the guide bringing random foreigners in for a cup of tea. 

This lovely woman didn't seem to mind the guide bringing random foreigners in for a cup of tea. 

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- I had thanaka (the bark make-up stuff) put on my face and found the perfect replacement for the rather battered hat which had travelled with me from New Zealand. My new hand-woven beauty cost the equivalent of 50 cents, and when I tried to give the shopkeeper $2, she just threw in a hat for the guide as well

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 Is this not a Most Fine Hat, from a Most Fine village store?

Is this not a Most Fine Hat, from a Most Fine village store?

- Our final port of call was billed as a noodle factory. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn't this. The rice noodle sheets (looking a bit like under-cooked crepes) are steamed on this flat pans on a clay burner in a shed off a small, basic, family house, with rice husks being used as the fuel. Then the slightly sticky sheets are hung up to dry and then cut into noodles and sold locally. John assured us the family didn't mind being photographed, though the look on this woman's face here makes me wonder. Certainly the family didn't gain anything from being part of our tour, though I would have loved to have bought some noodles if I could...

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aye noodle 1.jpg

And then we went home.

 Only a mojito could have made life more perfect...

Only a mojito could have made life more perfect...

Of course, John urged us to spread the word about his tours - he has a wife and new baby and would love to see lots of tourists come and overrun his villages. Maybe I should write to the Lonely Planet. Part of me would love John and the local villagers to get the money that tourism would bring. But part of me just wants it to stay just the way it is.*  

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aye kid.jpg

* “As I see the world, there's one element that's even more corrosive than missionaries: tourists. It's not that I feel above them in any way, but that the very places they patronise are destroyed by their affection.” Tahir Shah, travel writer, fromHouse of the Tiger King: The Quest for a Lost City.

Six photos that made us smile (and a couple of extras)

In no particular order, and apologies that I've posted some on FB already

1) This hat is the business.

Beautiful, warm, stylish, this is THE hat in all the 2017-2018 winter season collections in Nyaungshwe. And when you are indoors, it doubles as the ultimate device to keep your teapot hot. To my infinite regret I gave it away as a Christmas gift, but not before taking it for a spin - and meeting up with some other trendy hatsters. 

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hats 2.JPG

2) Not a tragic road accident

But the juxtaposition of a sleeping dog - in the middle of the road, where else would a Burmese dog sleep (see second photo below) - and a hearty gob of kwun ya, or chewed betel nut.

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3) We spent a while watching this wedding photo shoot. What a palaver! There was a cast of about seven people, what with dressers and lighting and camera crew - oh and the couple themselves. The bride- and groom-to-be were only just on speaking terms by the end. 

seven wedding.JPG

4) Surely this isn't really the Ministry of Commerce/Department of Consumer Affairs  building? Or maybe it is...

5) I just loved this pig-puppy partnership in Mandalay. The puppy climbed up and the pig iddn't even wake up

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6) Burmese pagoda dress code. I'd never heard of a spaghetti blouse, but apparently it's a real thing, and not just in Myanmar.

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Getting grumpy about pagodas

 My favourite Myanmar pagoda, at Mawlamyine

My favourite Myanmar pagoda, at Mawlamyine

Pagodas and monks are a big part of the tourism experience in Myanmar. The former are ubiquitous, impressive, often beautiful. The latter are fascinating and photogenic. But the longer I stay in Myanmar, the more I question whether the way Buddhism is practised in this country isn't doing at least as much harm as good. 

As I have said before, Myanmar isn't in a great state economically. Not as bad as it was in the 1970s-1990s, when it spent time in the world's 10 poorest nations ranking. By 2017 it had climbed to number 61 in terms of per capita purchasing power, but for most people, life's pretty tough. 

 There's more electricity in this halo than in many rural areas

There's more electricity in this halo than in many rural areas

Still, you'd never know it was a poor country looking at the pagodas. I can't find out how many there are in Myanmar, but it's not called the "land of pagodas" for nothing. The most pipsqueak village with people living in cane and bamboo houses and working in the rice fields will have at least one pagoda/monastery, sometimes two or three. They are almost all well kept up. And what's most astonishing for an outsider is how many of these have (real) gold all over the stupa. 

 More gold than Myanmar's official reserve

More gold than Myanmar's official reserve

A 2014 article in the Myanmar Times estimated the value of just the frilly "umbrella" bit at the top of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at $US3 billion, including over half a tonne of gold and 5500 diamonds. That was around 5% of the country's total GDP at the time. The main Shwedagon stupa has more tonnes of gold on it than the official reserve of the national bank.

 The Shwedagon umbrella (image nicked from the interwebs, as it's too high up to protograph)

The Shwedagon umbrella (image nicked from the interwebs, as it's too high up to protograph)

Pagodas are being built and renovated all the time - an impressive, but not terribly productive use of scarce resources. At Ko Yin Lay, a monastery complex in the middle of nowhere outside the small southeastern town of Ye, a vast reclining Buddha has been added to the site since the Lonely Planet guidebook was researched in 2015/2016, and there are signs more building is about to start. Why? Aren't five huge Buddha images enough?

 A huge reclining Buddha has been added to the already impressive four sitting Buddhas around a tower at Banana Mountain (Ko Yin Lay), outside Ye

A huge reclining Buddha has been added to the already impressive four sitting Buddhas around a tower at Banana Mountain (Ko Yin Lay), outside Ye

Renovating pagodas often involves adding to or replacing the gold on the stupa. In many places you can buy a tiny piece of gold leaf at a price significantly higher than the market price for gold. Then, depending on the height of the stupa, either you stick the gold on yourself, or someone climbs up and puts it on for you. At Inle Lake's Phaung Daw Oo pagoda, so much gold has been layered onto five ancient statues that they look more like legless Teletubbies than Buddhas.

 Buddhas turned into amorphous blobs by an excess of gold

Buddhas turned into amorphous blobs by an excess of gold

It seems crazy to me. The pagodas are beautiful, and necessary in the life of a Buddhist, but surely there do not need to be so many, and they don't need to be the repository for so much wealth. In terms of seriously non-productive use of resources, spending money on gold to pile onto a stupa or statue is way up there. Not even the monks get anything out of it.

"How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor," said Pope Francis soon after becoming the head of the Catholic church. In Myanmar, monasteries do provide some social function - they educate many poor and/or rural children. And I'm sure they provide spiritual support for many people. But it's hard not to believe the country would be richer with poorer pagodas.

 These Mandalay women - four generations, including newborn twins - appeared to be living at the temple. They could have benefitted from a bit of stupa gold.

These Mandalay women - four generations, including newborn twins - appeared to be living at the temple. They could have benefitted from a bit of stupa gold.

 This traditional Buddhist ceremony, carried out before a boy goes to do his stint as a novice monk, can be seriously expensive for families.

This traditional Buddhist ceremony, carried out before a boy goes to do his stint as a novice monk, can be seriously expensive for families.

My Burmese friend Aye Zaw gets really cross. Born a Buddhist, these days he's a Christian living in Auckland and it drives him crazy watching his Myanmar relatives spending what little money they have on gold, flowers, money offerings and other religious paraphernalia for the local temple or monastery. Instead of wasting money in a vain effort to ensure future riches (material or spiritual), he argues, why don't they spend that same money trying to improve their present and future conditions? He doesn't understand his elderly mum getting up at 4am to cook rice and curry for the monks. And he's frustrated by the loss of productivity and drain on the economy having up to half a million men and women of working age shut up in monasteries. 

I can see his point. 

But of course I'm not a believer either.

 Just another beautiful pagoda - this one in Pathein

Just another beautiful pagoda - this one in Pathein