The even wilder north of Argentina

On the bus, on the way to Jujuy.

We had to do one more ‘city’ to do in the north of Argentina, surely? Hmmmm, OK San Salvador de Jujuy, otherwise known as Jujuy.  Besides, I had not been here in 1999, and I was trying to throw in a little bit of new as well as revisiting with Alex many of the splendid places I had already visited. Juyuy is also renowned as the national capital of Pacha Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth. Apparently this is the place where you start to feel the real proximity to Bolivia. Apart from food that seems more Andean (like locro, humitas and sopa de mani) than Argentina’s pizza, pasta and meat show, I cannot say that I really felt this.  I did like Jujuy though. It felt more like a big town than a city to me. I loved its markets and its buzzy atmosphere.  It was a nice place to relax for a couple of days, as we knew that we were well and truly on the way out of the country, but we still had a few places to go.

When in doubt, take all roads!

North of Jujuy the road snakes its way through the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a painter’s palette of colour on  barren hillsides and small hamlets that communities ofQuechua speakers call home. This route is also part of the infamous Inca Trail, the route that the Incas both carved out and took from the north to the south of the continent (effectively from Colombia to Santiago de Chile) all those years ago.  There were three places that we were deciding on doing in the Quebrada; we could not decide, so needless to say, we did all three! Purmamarca, Tilcara and Humahuaca, in that order.

Purmamarca.
Having fun in Purmamarca.

Purmamarca is renowned for its Cerro de Siete Colores or the Hill of Seven Colours, which literally sits behind the tiny town.  As the bus rolled into town, I was blown away by the number of buses and cars I saw parked, quite literally, everywhere!  My, my how this tiny town had changed since 1999. The Quebrada de Humahuaca, incorporating Purmamarca, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003. Such an act has clearly increased the interest of both national and international tourism to the area. There were people … everywhere! The central town square was crawling with vendors and tourists.  Eek!  It just seemed like the Disneyland of the Quebrada to me. Having said that, nobody can take away from the beauty of its surrounds, and I tried to focus on that. Accommodation, and particularly budget accommodation, still has a long way to go.  We checked into a place called Mama Coca, but had to leave at 10pm as the chain smoking owners had us gasping for air. They were also both particularly rude when we politely approached them about feeling like we were being gassed!

With Naty and Marcelo of Alta Montana.

Tilcara followed Purmamarca. This area features even more dramatic mountainous landscapes that are very rich in aboriginal/ indigenous traditions. I love people and culture and it was just getting better the further north we went. We hung out here for a few days in the amazing Alta Montana Hostal. The owners, Marcelo and Naty made us feel at home, and in no time at all we were sitting on the porch together sipping mate. We ‘shared’ the hostel with a big group of kids in their final year of high school from Cordoba. The school was Colegio Maestro Diehl; a music/arts school.  They were on an end of year gig, which included playing instruments and singing with some of the local schools and communities.  They were awesome, awesome kids! Open-minded, friendly, polite, courteous and fun, Alex and I built an amazing rapport with them over the several days we were there.

Chewing coca leaves with Horacio Galan.

One of the highlights of our trip to Tilcara was our walk with amazing local guide, Horacio Galan (if you go to Tilcara, look him up via Alta Montana Hostal). He took us on a walk through the countryside, including some steep uphill climbs, amazing caves (Cuevas de Waira) and breathtaking views. As we had been slowly moving up north the elevation was also creeping up slowly; in Tilcara it was 2465 metres above sea level. Horacio bought us some coca leaves (widely used in northern Argentina and Bolivia) and explained how they helped combat altitude and altitude sickness.  After this walk I was sold and they would prove to be invaluable in the high altitudes of southern Bolivia later on!

Another Tilcara highlight was the walk culminating in the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat. A geographical feature formed by the movement of teutonic plates, it is now a deep chasm or gorge, and a walk further along the track leads you to a gorgeous waterfall. There is much evidence of aquatic life here, as in fossils of trilobites. Like a lot of the surrounding area, this was once under water. No trip to Tilcara, however, would really be complete without visiting El Pucara, a pre-Inca fortification strategically located on a hill, just out of town. Of course, we decided to do this on the same day as the walk to the Devil’s Throat!  When we got back to the hostal we were dead!

Trekking with Horacio.

Happy Birthday to Ombi!

We have been lucky in Argentina to find hostels and accommodation with kitchens, so we have been
able to do a lot of cooking.  The fruit and veggies from the markets have been excellent.  It has also been relatively easy to find grains and pulses such as lentils, chick peas and quinoa (although the latter is ridiculously expensive; more so than in Australia). Alta Montana had a particularly good kitchen. I also spent my birthday here; pretty laid back.  Naty made me a rice flour cake and surprised me by singing me Happy Birthday later that night. I was going to miss her and Marcelo; they had been truly awesome!

It was finally time to go, and Humahuaca would be our final destination in Argentina. The kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl would also be going to Humahuaca … hugs all around as they asked us to look them up when we got there. I liked Humahuaca as soon as we arrived.  It had the small-town feel and beautiful scenery of Purmamarca without the throngs of tourists. We found a gorgeous little place to stay called Waira; small, comfortable, homely and with excellent staff. With the northern Argentine landscape providing one spectacular backdrop better then the next, Humahuaca was no different. The Hill of Seven Colours move over … here we have the Mountains of 14 colours!  Despite the fact that the last weeks had provided us with more layers of colour than we had ever seen before, how could we not do the hills with 14!?

The mountains of 14 colours, Humahuaca.

Of course we did it!  We went with a local elder in his truck who was super-knowledgeable and gave us a lot of history about the area.  The windy road up was almost as spectacular as the final destination (thank heavens for those coca leaves, it was pretty high!) The mountains of the14 colours are known as Hornocal. It was a beautiful spot to breathe in (quite literally!), sit down and just take it all in!  So often, here in the north, I have found myself taking in the spectacular beauty and being thankful that I am able to do this.  I am well aware that so many are not!

The town itself is small, but still a wander around is very revealing.  Very close to the Bolivian

The kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl, Humahuaca.

border, Humahuaca certainly has a different feel and vibe, from the people’s faces to the food!  We caught up again with the kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl, and hung out with them at their hostel. Seriously, lovely, lovely kids!  They would be leaving a day before us! Their ways, personalities and drive had so impressed Alex and I that we decided to give them a farewell speech at their dinner (before catching the bus back to Cordoba that night).  I spoke in English (many of them had excellent English) and Alex in Spanish.  Many of them cried, and each and every one of them hugged us both. They told us how great it had been meeting us and that we were an inspiration to them! One girl grabbed me before I left and told me that although she knew that she could ‘do it’, how important it was to hear it from us, that ‘each and every one of them was able to achieve if they believed in and followed their dream.’ Wow! As we walked away and waved goodbye, I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. To make a difference in someone’s life is one of the greatest gifts!  Since saying goodbye, many of these kids have contacted us personally to tell us how wonderful it was to meet us, and how inspirational we were to them.  Honoured, that is the only word to describe how I feel!

The end of the Argentine line! La Quiaca.

So, the time had come, Bolivia was around the corner!  Well, perhaps over the hill! La Quiaca is truly the end of the line; 5171kilometres north of Ushuaia, Argentina’s most southern point, and a world apart. Our only mission here was to spend the last of our pesos and cross over into Bolivia.  We found this pretty flawless, actually. A bag full of goodies later, we were exiting Argentina and … Bolivia here we come!

Ombi

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”. – Bernard M. Baruch

Next: The tranquility of Tupiza and the breathtaking Salt Flats of Uyuni.

On the way to San Juan de Jujuy.

San Juan city centre.

A bit of Dulce de Leche?

Hugging a llama!

Purmamarca.
A tiny town amidst spectacular hills; Purmamarca.
Alta Montanita Hostal, Humahuaca.
Soccer, Humahuaca.
The students of Maestro Diehl College, Cordoba.
Stream; Tilcara.
El Pucara, pre-Incan fortification, Tilcara.
Cactus, Tilcara.
Waira Cave, Tilcara.

Some meat in San Juan.

Waira Cave, inside.

Cacti, Tilcara.
Humahuaca street art.
Humahuaca.
The mountains of 14 colours.
Transport in La Quiaca.
The last pesos go on an ice-cream … of course!
The adventure continues.
Goodbye Argentina!

Trekking, Tilcara.
Ombi’s homemade lentil stew.
Chillin’ at Alta Montana, Tilcara.
Humahuaca town centre.

May there be peace and love.

The wild, wild … north … of Argentina

Amaicha del Valle.

Although Amaicha del Valle  (in the Calchaquies Valley)is only a short bus ride from Tafi del Valle, it may as well be another world away. It’s the first place (heading north) that starts to feel a little bit less Argentine, a little bit more rural, a little bit more indigenous and a little bit more like Bolivia! I love that! In my opinion, it is the most visually spectacular part of the country. In Amaicha resides the only indigenous community in northern Argentina that has still conserved its Diaguita culture; ancestral traditions and Mother Earth (Pacha Mama) rules here. It has a lovely, relaxed and safe vibe. You feel it as soon as you enter the small village.  Not many tourists either, which is part of the reason we chose it. We stayed in a place called Pacha Cuty; basic, clean and no locks on the door. Yes, no locks on any of the doors!  That’s unheard of.  That’s just the way it is there.  I was a bit wary because, as a traveller, you just don’t do that. But we followed suit, and had no problems whatsoever.

Pachamama Museum.

We had a couple of very laid back days here.  I felt like I had been dropped off in the middle of wild, wild west … well, north! Part of our deal at the hostel included dinner, and the hosts went out of their way to make me vegetarian and us wheat-free food.  All exceptionally tasty You are a great chef Juan. Apart from chilling we did manage to see the Pachamama (Mother Earth) Museum. This museum was designed by the painter and sculptor, Hector Cruz, who apart from displaying his wares wanted to describe and present the culture of the people that once lived here.

The Quilmes Ruins.

Hitching a ride with the locals.

We also visited the Quilmes Ruins, the ruins of a pre-Hispanic settlement, not too far out of Amaicha. With no real organised transport out there we got a taxi. Although the ruins have been considerably reconstructed, the views and walks around the area are phenomenal and the place rich in history. The natives who lived here were conquered as slaves, and were taken to the Quilmes district in a Buenos Aires suburb 1500 kilometres away. Very dry and dusty, we walked the five kilometres back to the main road, and with no buses or taxis in sight, managed to hitch the short ride home with some locals. In their beaten up truck we stopped at a few places along the way including the guy’s father’s house and the lady’s grandma.  You can’t pay for these experiences.

Waterfalls near Cafayate.

Next up was the spectacular Cafayate. The Quebrada de Cafayate, it is not only surrounded by some of Argentina’s best vineyards, but also with some of its most spectacular scenery. The place has lots of wineries and other  amazing things to see.  A lot of it can be done on foot and although there are certainly lots of tourists it manages to keep a small-town feel and charm. We hit the jackpot withHostal Benjamin, a little place close to the city centre and with our own kitchen.  I always love a good kitchen! We bumped into Milton, an Argentine backpacker, that we had briefly met on our way back from the Quilmes Ruins, and hung out together for the next few days. The three of us did a guided walk through an area with a number of waterfalls.  Some bits were hard, and a little scary for me, but between the guide, Alex and Milton, I did it!

Riding through the Gorge of the Shells.

The highlight however, without a doubt, was the bicycle ride through the part of the Quebrada de Quebrada de las Conchas (Gorge of the Shells, so known as millions of years ago it was all underwater, and today fossils of shells are scattered throughout).  The three of us hired bicycles and caught a bus 50 kilometres away from Cafayate, to then cycle back towards it, through the Martian-like landscape.  This area is the backdrop to distinctive sandstone landforms such as the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), El Anfiteatro (Amphitheatre), El Sapo (toad) and los Castillos (Castles). Zipping along from one place to the next was mind-blowingly exhilarating! The last five kilometres, however, was also mind-blowingly tough on our butts!  After a full day, and having had a brilliant time, we got back to Cafayate totally spent!  We stopped at the first place we could find water and skulled it like people dying of thirst in the desert. We certainly got some weird looks from the locals.
Cafayate known as

Beautiful Cafayate.

We were finding it hard to leave Cafayate as it was so laid-back, relaxed and beautiful. We also managed another guided walk through an area with a local lady from the Diaguita community. She showed us some rock paintings, told us about her people and also explained how the local plants were used medicinally by her community.  She also talked about the ‘evils’ of modern-day food such as wheat and sugar and went on to tell us that her great grandmother had lived until the age of 111! Food for thought, so to speak! Although not wine-buffs, we did also try the local torrontes wine and visit the excellent wine museum.

Arrow Gorge.

We had heard about a little place called Cachi further up north. Apparently not so easy to get to Quebrada de las Flechas (Arrow Gorge). Part one OK, part 2????  We landed in tiny Angastaco, there were no tourists … and there was one truck willing to take us solo to Cachi … at a hefty price of course, as we had nobody to share with. What to do? We ended up hitching a ride in the back of a Hi-Lux. Before we even had the chance to actually hitch a ride, we saw two couples walking towards their car. We went over, introduced ourselves, had a chat, and before we knew it we were sitting in the back of the truck with all of their suitcases, shoes, newly acquired cacti … and the wind (and dust!) blowing through our hair as we took the spectacular but fairly isolated dirt road to Cachi! Yeee haa!
It’s rather difficult without your own transport, but well worth it if you can.  Of course we figured we’d give it a crack! We were told that we would be able to get a bus to Angastaco, only a couple of hours away, and that from there we could find smaller trucks that, when full, would take you the rest of the way.  The ride to Angastaco was windy, but yet again, spectacular!

On the way to Cachi.

What can I say?  What an experience! We got to see a few off the beaten track places that we would not have otherwise seen, especially the Artesans’ route, where we actually got to see women weaving everything from scarves to ponchos. As buses do not come this way, there are far fewer tourists than elsewhere. We even got to meet the wife (husband now deceased) who had woven and presented the Argentine Pope with a poncho.

The Artisans’ Route.

We finally made it to Cachi by dusk; totally covered in dust but very happy campers!  We thanked our new friends profusely for allowing us to come for the ride.  But it wasn’t over yet … we had to find a place to sleep.  Alex waited with the backpacks, and the Queen of Clean (moi!) was off … I had a clean room and comfortable bed to find!  As I walked around and checked a few places out I admired the quaint little town with its gorgeous colonial architecture.  This would be a great place to chill for a day or so.  We ended up at the clean and comfortable Hotel Nevado de Cachi.  Luxurious it was not, but clean, safe, well-priced and with comfortable beds it was.  A shower had never felt so good! The dirt and dust … it was everywhere!  Even after we were all polished up, we were exhausted. With no communal kitchen in this place, we decided to try Viracocha Restaurant across the road.  We were pleased with the quality of the food, but as usual (with touristy places!) we felt the portion sizes could have been a little more generous. Clean and fed, there was only one thing left at the end of this long and arduous day … bed!

Cachi by day.

Cachi.

There’s not a lot to do in this spectacularly beautiful town, but that’s part of the charm really. We did stop in at the local archaeological museum as well as went for a walk to the cemetery on top of the hill. Other than that we wandered, relaxed, drank coffee and observed. That’s the life, hey!

We were beginning to feel that we were never going to leave Argentina.  In the north it’s spectacular views one day, even more brilliant ones the next!

Ombi

“You’re only given a little spark of madness.  You mustn’t lose it”. –Robin Williams

Next: Wrapping up in Argentina; San Salvador de Jujuy and the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

The Quilmes Ruins.

The Quilmes Ruins.

Pachamama Museum.

Pachamama Museum.
The eternal backpackers … Amaicha del Valle.
In Amaicha del Valle.
We were not the only ones enjoying the Quilmes Ruins.

In life … you have to smile!

In Pacha Cuty Hostal, Amaicha del Valle.

Next destination?
The vineyards of Cafayate.
Cafayate.
Mural, Cafayate.
Spot the llama! Cafayate.
Mural, Cafayate.
Cafayate.
Home cooking, Cafayate.
The walk to the waterfalls, Cafayate.
We made it!  The waterfalls of Cafayate.
With Milton; waterfalls, Cafayate.
Out and about in Cafayate.
Cafayate.
Rock painting; with Gabriela of the Diaguita community.
Billy Goat Gruff in Cafayate.
The Devil’s Throat, Gorge of the Shells.
What a ride!
Alex does his thing.
Cemetery at Cachi.
Cachi.
One spectacular view after another; with Milton.
Life is for living.
This is the way!
We did it … 50 kilometre ride!
Cafayate town.
Riding on the back of the Hi Lux to Cachi.
Zapatista Ombi.
The Artisans’ Route.
Thanks for the ride guys!
Alex enjoying a drink at Viracocha Restaurant.

Leaving Amaicha del Valle.

The Old Mates Tour Part 2

Dinosaurs … alive and kicking!

When I had been here in 1999 I had done a day trip out to Valley of the Moon from San Juan, but this time we decided to go out and stay there so we could explore the area properly and over a few days. It had always left a really big impression on me and I wanted to share it with Alex. We made our way to the relaxed, green little village of Valle Fertil, 250 kilometres northeast of San Juan and set amid colourful hills and rivers, from where we would do our adventuring. We ended up at the Campo Base (Valle de la Luna) Hostelling International Hostel.  It was a small, yet fun hostel where we met and made some great friends, and also hung out with them over the next few days.

The two main trips to do from Valle Fertil are the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) which is formally known as Ischigualasto Triassic Park and Talampaya National Park. Both are, in a word, incredible! After a day of wandering around the town, and taking it easy, we set out on a couple of adventures.

The Bocce Field.

The Valley of the Moon was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, as it’s one of the most important fossil reserves in the world. Move over Jurassic Park!  Here we are talking Triassic, and this place is home to some of the oldest fossil remains on earth, dating back some 230 million years (unless, of course, you believe that man walked with dinosaurs 2000 years ago!) The eerie landscape, constituting years of erosion, is what has given the park its memorable name. It really does resemble a lunar landscape.  Over three hours and 40 kilometres we saw numerous natural rock formations like ‘the worm’, ‘the mushroom’, ‘the submarine’, ‘the Sphinx’ and ‘the bocce field’. Not to mention the mind-blowing landscape that was the backdrop. It was possibly the bocce field that had me most intrigued; this area has perfectly polished spheres made of the same material as the soil, and there is no explanation for their formation. Yet again, I could only admire and keep telling myself how truly fortunate I was to be able to see this!

Talampaya National Park.
Run for your life!!!!

The next day we visited Talampaya National Park, known as the Talampaya Canyon, which was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. Whist this park too has numerous fossil remains, the main attraction are the gorges and rock formations with walls of up to 150 metres high, narrowing to 80 metres at one point. A guided tour took us through a series of rock formations, (The Monkey, The Gothic Cathedral), a botanical garden, petroglyphs and even a botanical garden. Nature truly astounds!

In Tucuman with Pepe.

And so, with some more spectacular sights under our belt, the Old Mates Tour was to continue.  Next San Miguel de Tucuman, or simply Tucuman, as the locals call it, to see my friend Pepe and his family.  A friendship forged in Rio Gallegos in 1999, in the very south of Argentina, I would then visit him and his family several months later as I continued my trip upwards through the continent. I stayed with Pepe and his parents then, and I was returning to do the same. Unfortunately it would be without his wonderful Dad, Antonio, who has since passed away. Pepe was to meet us at the bus terminal. Once again a very emotional reunion it was.  I ran off the bus and Pepe and I embraced as Alex looked on and took some photos.  I was speechless, and my eyes teared up as I hugged Pepe, who is like a brother to me. We just hugged for a few minutes and, in-between tears, I introduced him to Alex.  It was like no time had passed.
we were off to

With Flora and Pepe.

Pepe had taken a couple of hours off work (he is a teacher) so that he could take us back to his place. As we sat in the taxis the memories came flooding back … the people, the places, how wonderfully I had been treated by his family, how they had made me feel loved, how they had loved me!  In no time we were at Pepe’s house, and it was more hugs and tears all around as I hugged Flora (Pepe’s mum), who told me how great it was to have a member of the family back again. Her daughter had come back to visit her!

With our Tucuman Family.

Pepe had to go back to work, so we spent the afternoon with Flora chatting and reminiscing. What a beautiful, kind lady. Despite the fact that she was in her 80s and ill, she gave up her double bed for us.  I insisted no, she insisted (harder than us!) yes! We spent a brilliant week in Tucuman, chilling and catching up with the rest of the ‘family’; Pepe’s Aunt Dali and his cousin Mari, Mari’s son Danny and partner Fernando, Anita ( a good friend of theirs who was really like family) and her family. That very same afternoon Anita came screaming through the house with a big hug for me.  The Gringa Loca (crazy foreigner) had come back and this time with a bit more than a shaved head! That night we went to visit Dali and the family.  More hugs and tears. Feeling very loved!

Asado with the family.

Flora went out of her way to cook me a range of vegetarian dishes which were absolutely delicious. Although Pepe had to work, we spent as much time as we could with him; dinners with his aunt, afternoon tea with Anita and her family, (another!) big asado (BBQ) at Mari and Fernando’s house just outside of town.  That was on a Sunday, as is the norm in Argentina; they raise show horses, so that was the backdrop to our all-day eating! They say that Tucuman is a big city with a small town feel.  Well, yes and no!  Unfortunately, it also has a reputation of not being so safe.  We most certainly got that vibe, but were our usual, vigilant selves. We did walk into the city centre on several occasions during the day, taking in the sights, having good (well, not as good as Melbourne!) coffee and just generally chilling out.

Bye, bye Flora, we will miss you!

The week passed before we knew it.  Mari and Fernando had invited us out to their holiday house at Tafi del Valle.  Only 126 kilometres from Tucuman, this pretty little town, overlooking a lake, is where folks from Tucuman come in summer. That would be perfect as we were planning to go there on the Monday anyway.  In this way, we could do it together and then keep moving.  Unfortunately Pepe would not be able to come as he had hurt his ankle and had been ordered total rest and relaxation by his doctor.  Mari would come and pick up up on the Saturday afternoon.  We packed our backpacks on the Saturday morning and slowly said our goodbyes to Flora and Pepe.  This was proving to be really hard. Finally the time came, and Mari came to pick us up.  I hugged Pepe with gusto, and then hugged Flora even harder.  I told them both that I loved them. “I love you too”, Flora told me.  As I jumped in the car and waved goodbye, I bawled my eyes out.  You see, Flora has advanced breast cancer, and I probably will not see her again.

At the holiday house in Tafi del Valle.

Mari is very close to her aunt, and we chatted about this in the car. These people are my family. They have treated me with the love and respect that some of my own blood have not afforded me.  I always hold special people close to my heart. We had a wonderful two days at Tafi. We ate, slept, went for drives and hung out. Peaceful, tranquil and relaxing … before our adventure would continue.

In no time at all, it was time to say goodbye to Mari and Fernando as well.  Where had the time gone? On Monday they dropped us off at the small bus terminal, from where we would be heading north to Amaicha del Valle. Again, more hugs and tears as we said goodbye.  I repeat, this is never something that I will get used to.  I have made some friends overseas that have touched the core of my being. Silence as the bus took off and we waved goodbye. I momentarily felt very sad and alone!

Ombi

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.” – William James

Dedication: Pepe, Flora, Dali and Mari you are our Tucuman family and we love you from the bottom of our hearts.  Thank you for all the love you showed us, not only in the week that we were with you, but over the last fifteen years as we stayed in contact. We love you all!

Dedicacion: Pepe, Flora, Dali and Mari son nuestra familia en Tucuman y les amamos de nuestros corazones.  Gracias por todo el amor que nos brindaste, no solamente en la semana que pasamos con ustedes, pero en las ultimas quince anos que nos quedamos en contacto.  Les amamos a todos!

Welcome to the land of dinosaurs.

Selfie in the Valley of the Moon
Valle Fertil

Talampaya … but we are simply grains of sand
On the road to Talampaya
Rock Art, Valley of the Moon.
These are the layers of our lives; Valley of the Moon.
Valley of the Moon
Great to see you again Pepe.
With the gorgeous Flora; Pepe’s mum.
Feeling at home with Flora and Pepe.
With Mari, Pepe’s cousin.
Good food, good wine and good friends.
In Flora’s yard.
Always the devil.
Good salami and cheese in Argentina!
Pepe’s work look.
Any time is a good time for an asado in Argentina.
With Pepe.
Fernando on one of his horses.
A shop that sells ONLY sweets … common in Argentina!
With Pepe and Ana.
With Ana’s gorgeous family.
Flora feeding me her home-made hommous.
To mate or not to mate, THAT is the question!
In my case, good friends and good coffee.
Tafi del Valle … serious about their food!
Mari’s weekend home.
The house at Tafi del Valle.
Fernando and Alex … Tafi del Valle.
Tafi del Valle.
Talampaya.
Pac Man … the Bocce Field.
Ahhhhhhh!
Guanaco, Talampaya National Park.
Peruvian horse breeder Fernando. Tucuman.
Perspective … Talampaya National Park. 







Argentina … The Old Mates Tour

Melbourne trams? No, Mendoza trams!

After seeing the many photos we posted on Facebook and our Facebook page, veryitchyfeet.com, our friend from Buenos Aires, Diego, noted that our trip through Argentina  was like an old mates tour. Well, yes, I suppose it was! Travelling is not only about seeing new places, experiencing different cultures and meeting new friends … it is also about catching up with old ones!

Welcome to Mendoza.

Iguazu Falls was going to be pretty hard to beat, but it was time to move on once again and so we were off to Mendoza, in the centre of the country (to the west and close to the Chilean border). It is smack bang in the middle of the some of the country’s best vineyards and has a lovely, temperate climate, but as neither Alex nor I are really into wine, visiting wineries was not our focus.  We stayed at a lovely little colonial hotel called Hotel Zamora, which I can highly recommend; comfortable, clean and close to the centre. We also met a lovely Chilean family there, (Natalia, Jose and baby Balthasar) who we have since remained in touch with. New friends to catch up with on our next trip to Chile!

Our trip to the Chilean border.

Close to Bridge of the Incas.

The highlight of our trip to Mendoza was our day trip, heading west, through the Andes, to to the border of Chile. Thermals, hats and gloves a must, it was very, very cold, but remarkably spectacular. We took in places like Potrerillos, Uspallata, Penitentes, the Bridge of the Incas and a viewpoint from where we could see the imposing Mount Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak at 6,960 metres. Aconcagua. Breathtakingly beautiful (as well as cold) we had a great day including a shot on a cable car with the glistening snow below.

Another Mendoza highlight was the ‘bus turistico’ Mendoza City Tour which took in several of the main sights and was a lovely way to take in several things quickly. Apart from going past several ‘obligatory’ sights, we also visited Cerro (hill) de la Gloria, where we able to take a short walk to the top of a hill which rewarded us with spectacular views over the city. Central Park was also an expansive place that we took a stroll through … always good to see the locals hanging out on a Sunday. We also took a tram out to Maipu, about 15 kilometres from Mendoza City. Again we strolled around and took in the tranquil countryside. We visited the very interesting Museo Nacional del Vino y la Vendimia (National Museum of Wine).  Set in a colonial home where an Italian immigrant started his own wine company, we received a personalised tour of this immigrant’s life and how he became a wine baron.

Mendoza vineyard.
Pictures tell a thousand words.

I was getting excited, our next destination would be San Juan, just a couple hours north of Mendoza. There we would be catching up with my gorgeous friend Viviana, whom I met in a park (in San Juan) when I was travelling through South America in 1999.  We hit it off all those years ago, and remained in contact, but I had not seen her since. We were both very, very excited.  She would be meeting us at the bus station.  Needless to say, it was a very emotional reunion, where we both hugged and cried for several minutes. Fifteen years had passed but the bond we had created all those years ago was as strong as ever.

1999 with Maxi and Vivi.

Sunday asado with the family.

We spent a wonderful week in San Juan. Whilst we most certainly got out and about and did things, our main focus was to spend time with Vivi.  We stayed at a great (clean, inexpensive, friendly staff) place called Hotel Nuevo San Francisco, in a centrally located and safe part of town.  We can highly recommend it. Each morning we would meet Vivi and do things together; we usually ended up at her place, which she shares with her delightful parents Gloria and Jorge. In no time at all, we formed a very strong bond and I knew it was going to be hard to say goodbye. I was overcome with emotion when we found Soy Chu, a fantastic vegetarian restaurant. We had mostly been cooking in as Argentina is (I really do love you Argentina!) the meat, pizza and pasta show … a tough gig for a vegetarian who eats no wheat! I had hit the jackpot … or so I thought … a couple of days in, we were going to Vivi’s house and her mum was cooking up an array of vegetable dishes.  Move over Soy Chu … hello Soy Gloria!  Needless to say that became her nickname.

Pocito Town!

Our trips close to San Juan included ‘Pocito Town’, a place Vivi and I had visited together 15 years ago; the ‘highlight’ being its mini Statue of Liberty in the main square. So many good memories.  We sat in the plaza and sipped on mate as we watched the world go by. Another day we went out to Zonda, a tranquil mountainous area. Weekends in Argentina are all about family.  On the Saturday Vivi’s brother, Enrique, took us out to see the Ullum Dam as well as the Merced Del Estero Bodega, a boutique winery with some truly exceptional wines (coming from a wine dyslexic that’s pretty decent praise). So, we actually ended up seeing a winery in Argentina after all! We bought some wine to give to Vivi’s Dad, Jorge, as well as some for Enrique and the family as Sunday would be family asado (BBQ) day, and needless to say we were invited.

Sunday at Enrique’s house was a full on family affair.  The table was full of both food and people. Once again Gloria made sure that there were loads of veggie dishes. Lucky me! Apparently quite a few were new creations, just for me. Why thank you Gloria!

Thank you for the miracle received.

Our last day in San Juan was spent visiting ‘La Difunta Correa’ (the deceased Correa). Enrique’s father-in-law had kindly offered to take us.  Surely we could not leave Argentina without visiting a ‘saint’ whom people from all over Argentina as well as neighbouring countries come to see? Correa is a semi-pagan mythical figure.  Apparently she died around 1840 during the Argentine civil wars. In an attempt to reach her sick husband she undertook a long and arduous walk … she died along the way, but was found several days later with her child still feeding on her breast. And so a legend was born! Although not acknowledged by the Catholic Church the Difunta Correa is an unofficial popular saint. Her devout followers believe her to perform miracles. The shrine dedicated to her is phenomenal; from the tens of thousands of thank you notes for having saved lives and cured illnesses to the numerous number plates of new cars and models of new houses that were able to be bought. We even saw people ‘walking’ up the stairway to her shrine backwards and on their elbows! Some people choose to do this as a sign of respect for the ‘miracle’ granted them. Nothing like a good urban myth!

Goodbye Gloria, I will miss you!

And so our time in San Juan had come to an end. Our last night was a touching and emotional affair. We hugged, we cried, we laughed, and we vowed to remain in touch.  Some people come into your life for a short time and some are just meant to always be in it.  Vivi is meant to be in mine! As I hugged Gloria goodbye I gave her one of my favourite silver rings.  She didn’t want to accept it, but I insisted. Yes, it was one of my favourite rings, but it’s only a ‘thing’ and I wanted to give it to her. We focus so much on the material, but it’s really not what matters.  I knew how much it would mean to Gloria, yet for me it had simply been something that I had bought.  Things come and go; good people don’t! As we walked home to our hotel Vivi stood by her door and waved until we could no longer see each other. My heart slumped.  I always find such moments really heart-wrenching!

Ombi

Destiny is destiny.

Dedication: My beautiful friend Viviana, it was our destiny to meet again, and I know that it is our destiny to now meet again in Australia. Thank you for the love and friendship that you have shown me over the years.  Fifteen years passed but I always held you close to my heart.  You are a true friend; you are my sister.  Gloria and Jorge – thanks for embracing Alex and I like your own family. We love you all very much!

Dedicación: Mi linda amiga Viviana, era nuestro destino de vernos otra vez, y se que es nuestro destino vernos otra vez en Australia. Quince anos pasaron pero siempre te he tenido cerca de mi corazon. Eres una amiga verdadera; eres mi hermana. Gloria y Jorge – gracias por tratar a Alex y a mi como su propria familia.  Les amamos muchísimo!


Next: The Old Mates Tour Part 2. First the Fertile Valley west of San Juan (The Valley of the Moon and Talampaya National Park) and then catching up with more old friends.

” Creatures like the sheep, that are used to traveling, know about moving on”Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

National Museum of wine, Maipu.

The many faces of dulce de leche (caramelised condensed milk).

Cerro Gloria, Mendoza.
Contemplatively enjoying ice-cream in Maipu.

With our new Chilean friends.

Enjoying some good meat and wine in Mendoza.

Don’t close the tap or the water will freeze!

Chairlift near Chilean border.
This cake is called ‘Bomba’; merengue, chocolate, dulce de leche. OMG!

Say no to child labour!

The mate after the Sunday asado.

Vivi’s dad Jorge.

About to eat meat …

Wine tasting, Bodega Merced Estero, near San Juan.

Ullum Dam, near San Juan.

Day trip out to Zonda, near San Juan.
The cult of the Difunta Correa.
Thank you Difunta Correa for the miracles granted.
The many notes and photos thanking the Difunta Correa for the miracles granted them.
Gotta fit in as many hugs as I can.

With my San Juan family.

Clowns in 1999, still clowns now!

Around Zonda, near San Juan.

Zonda.
Painted bus on our day trip to Chilean border.
Coffee anyone?  Mendoza.
The beautiful mountains that border Chile.
Our day trip to the Chilean border, view after spectacular view.

Bridge of the Incas.

Close enough to Mendoza but freezing!
Chips … Argentine style!

In the far distance, Mt Acongagua, highest in South America.

Near Bridge of the Incas.

A rarity; a condor close up.

Day trip through the Andes.

Spectacular views.

Sunday asado with Vivi’s family, San Juan.

And so we were off … Buenos Aires here we come!

Dad’s been mapping my travels since 1989.

Getting ready for a one-month trip is one thing.  Getting ready for one of a year is entirely another! Although I finished up work several weeks before our departure on 13 August, I never expected that we would have so many things to do, wrap up and finalise. We were literally pumping until the eleventh hour. We decided months ago that we’d go away for a year … of work … play … perhaps a sabbatical … to South America … Asia Minor … eastern Europe … Italy perhaps … the Greek Islands?! We figured that buying a cheap return ticket to South America would be a great start although the actual journey and destinations were still unknown. Six months in South America and another six in Europe, ‘ somewhere in Europe’, sounded like a plan. Thus the idea was born and the tickets bought! First destination, Buenos Aires.

Ready, set, travel!

Of course you can’t multi-task in a rat race, which is what we felt we were living in, so how could we possibly plan a trip of such magnitude? Too busy wrapping up our jobs in IT and community engagement, respectively. Tickets … check, Lonely Planet … check. And that’s it folks!  With only a week to go we were trying to pack our bags, say goodbye to friends and family, organise our apartment and get ourselves sorted. Our last night was spent at Dad’s as our first flight from Melbourne to Sydney would be at 6.00am, demanding a 2.30am wake up. And so the eve of 12 August arrived, and with it a sense of, well, a lot of things. The time had come!  Tomorrow we would be leaving for yet another trip of a lifetime! I have had many. Head spinning, thoughts whirring … was I, were we, up for this … again? But you see, travel has become the blood that pulses through our veins, the bread that feeds us and the elixir that fills our souls and makes us scream, ‘we are happy to be alive’, so the answer to the question is, simply, yes! 


Going to miss you Dad!

Ready, set, travel! We got up early and Dad took us to the airport.  The plan was to check in early and sit down to a nice cuppa and say our goodbyes tranquilly and calmly. Not really nouns that people use to describe anything about me normally, but hey, it was all going smoothly, and I was sure that  we were going to be able to manage this one. Dad was parking the car and we were checking in.  “Your reciprocity visas please” asked the lady at the check-in counter. Say what? Alex has dual citizenship and so, although leaving Australia on his Australian passport, was going to enter Argentina on his Ecuadorian one to save him the AUD$100.00 that Australians have to pay for their one year visas. If you have multiple passports, flaunt them! You used to be able to get this upon arrival … but apparently you now have to do it on line … and show the receipt to the person at the check in-counter … otherwise you can’t board the flight!  How did we miss that one! Have the world travellers become too complacent? Fortunately, as we were early, we were able to organise this from the airport, but I have to say that a very tense hour ensued. The staff assigned  to help us had no idea. Alex then tried to log on and we went through a proxy company who did not give a receipt immediately. We needed a receipt!  Aaaaaaah!  A supervisor finally helped us log onto the official site and we soon had our visas paid for and receipt printed.  By this stage it was 5.30am and we needed to board. All we got was a quick hug with Dad, and we had to go.  The bright side? We were going!


Up, up and away; hasta la vista Australia!

It was going to be a long flight; Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Auckland, Auckland to Santiago (Chile) and finally Santiago to Buenos Aires (Argentina). I knew it was going to be a loooong one when I realised that the airlines had not organised any of my gluten-free meals nor had I brought any snacks.  Losing it!  Both me and the airlines that is! It was indeed a long flight, but as most of the flights were surprisingly empty, we did get a  fair bit of sleep. We also managed some sushi at Auckland Airport. Sad at what can excite one at times. 


Several hours  and time changes later we arrived at Ezeiza Airport, some 22 kilometres from the city centre.  We were exhausted, and we had the ‘look’ to prove it.  Our friend Cheryl, who now lives in BA, was coming to pick us up with her partner Walter, whom we had not met yet, although heard loads about. Tired but excited, we made our way through passport control and picked up our bags. We were here! We were in Argentina!  Let the journey begin!

The official car picks us up; gracias Walter!

We walked out, spotted Cheryl and Walter and then Cheryl and I proceeded with a ‘Chariots of Fire’ type run towards each other. Lots of screaming and hugging between the girls and then introductions all around. We were actually here, albeit exhausted. We were even afforded an official ride home, aka Walter’s car complete with Australian and Ecuadorian flags.


Party time in Buenos Aires.

The two and half weeks that followed have been truly amazing, and I mean truly, truly amazing.  We have stayed with Cheryl for most of that time. Thanks so much Cheryl; I can’t tell you how much we have enjoyed staying with you.  In a land of meat, pizza and pasta (I am vegetarian and Alex and I don’t eat wheat), I cannot express what a godsend her kitchen has been. We have shared lots of magic moments, good coffee and laughs.  We have been staying in San Telmo, the heart of all that is both touristy and tango. No amount of tourism, however, can take from the cobbled streets, old plazas and the old-world feel of this beautiful little suburb. It has been lovely to simply stroll, wander and just take it all in. 



In Barrio Cafetero with Cheryl.

Buenos Aires has offered us a little bit of everything on this amazing trip that we have only just begun; colourful markets, street art and graffiti, beautiful sunsets and amazing coffee, to only name a few things. Particularly good was Coffee Town in San Telmo (Agustina Roman was the 2014 Argentina barista champion), Barrio Cafetero in the downtown area and Lattente in Palermo.  The country continues with its trials and tribulations, including inflation and increasing poverty.  Seeing people sleeping on the streets is common place, as is kids jumping into to waste bins to scrounge for food. In buses small children try to sell you lollies and tissues. I can only look at them as my eyes well up with tears; their place is in school, not in  trains trying to sell me tissues for fifty cents. A blind man walked through a carriage one day holding out his hand.  I was simply overcome with emotion as I pressed some money into his hands and then wept silently.  I know that I cannot single-handedly change the world, but I can never, will never, ‘accept’ these injustices.


Buenos Aires Street Art ‘Las Islas Malvinas’  (The Falklands Islands conflict)


San Telmo.
Military Band.


















Sunset at Puerto de Frutas, Tigre.







Buenos Aires holds a very special place in my heart as I have so many friends here; Carolina and Fabiana whom I met whilst travelling through Europe in 1993; Charo whom I met in Colonia Suiza, Uruguay, in 1999 and then of course Diego, who I danced 1999/ 2000 away with when I lived in Quito, Ecuador. We have been able to catch up with all of them. We visited Tigre with Faby and her family and had fun at the ‘Puerto de Frutas’, an artisans’ market near the riverfront. If you think the Aussies are serious about their BBQs and meat … well, move over Australia … the Argentines are equally as serious, if not more so, about their asados (BBQ!), and they are a serious, serious ‘throw on every size, cut and type of meat and sausage affair! On telling an Argentine many years ago that I was a vegetarian, his prompt reply was simply, “Oh, you poor thing”!  Faby and her husband Gaby showed us how this was done at their place! 


With Diego in Chascomus.

Another day we went out to Chascomus with Diego and his husband Federico (I can say that now as they are legally married in Argentina! Congrats guys!). It’s a quiet little town some 120 kilometres outside of Buenos Aires and is situated around a number of lakes.  It’s a quaint little spot to walk around, relax and breathe in some country air.






The impressive Iguazu Waterfalls.  

Struggling to say goodbye to Cheryl, and not quite ready to say goodbye … just yet … we thought we’d diverge east and visit the spectacular Iguazu Waterfalls, on the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. A mere 19 hour bus ride away!  Argentina is a massive country and the distances between places reflect its enormity. The buses are excellent and you can choose seats that recline a fair way back, making for a decent sleep.  A sleep that beats one on any economy seat on  a plane! Nineteen hours later … we were in Puerto de Iguazu looking for a place to stay.  Bring on that sunny, sub-tropical climate! The usual scouting around found us a place called Peter Pan. How apt that the Peter Pan of travel should end up there!

Breathtaking!

 I visited the Brazilian side of the falls in 1999 when I was backpacking South America as a solo traveller, and stayed on and saw the Brazilian side. I do remember the majesty and grandeur, but nothing can take from seeing it all again!  This time we stayed on the Argentine side and ended up there on a picture-perfect day.  The views from the Argentine side are different; more scenic and sweeping views as opposed to the smaller in your-face-dramatic-drop.  Both beautiful!  Both with something different to offer.  The Argentine side is bigger with more walking, walkways and views. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could take from the views and energy that beheld us.


The photo says it all.

We only spent a couple of days at Puerto de Iguazu, but managed to fit in a few things, including walking to the confluence, very close by, of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.  I looked across the waters and reminisced about my time in both of these other countries that we would not make on this trip.  The world is huge and when its attractions, culture and people enthral you, time is never enough.




The flowers are in Argentina, R Brazil and L Paraguay.


At the Milonga.

Back in Buenos Aires, we would spend our last two days with Cheryl, relaxing, doing spin/ cycle classes Buenos Aires style, catching up with Effie,a Melbourne friend, who would coincidentally be here for a few days before we continued along our journey, eating good home-made food with Cheryl, and contemplating moving along once again. This is the part that I always find difficult.


What better way to spend our last night in this vibrant city than at a Milonga; that’s the locals’ version of a touristy tango show. Locals and foreigners seductively danced the passionate yet ‘sad’ dance to the strains of a soulful tango band, El Afronte. I observed and felt … it was all I could do!
And so just as our Buenos Aires sojourn began with a bang, it finished with one!
Ombi

No, I did NOT scoff the entire jar!

PD  I have a confession to make… I am addicted to dulce de leche, a type of caramelised condensed milk, which is as Argentinian as, well, meat!  It’s in cakes, biscuits, desserts and if that isn’t enough, buy yourself a tub and spoon it into your mouth … I do!


“Characterise people by their actions and you will never be fooled by their words.”




Dedication: 
To you Cheryl Quirion! You started off as a friend but really you are now our sister! Thanks for having us for two weeks, looking after us and feeding us!  You are here to stay. Love you sister!


Next: Mendoza, San Juan, Tucuman and northern Argentina.


Wine transporters; Australia to Argentina.


At Coffee Town with Cheryl and Walter.


“The city of Pope Francisco”.




Chillin’ with Cheryl.


L to R: Gaby, Alex, Faby, Florencia, Gonzalo and Nicolas.


Beautiful Buenos Aires.


With Pato (L) and Caro (R); first met in Paris in 1993.














Retiro Cemetery.


Retiro Cemetery.


Buenos Aires; the old and the new.


With Faby and family in Tigre.


Good times … and good food, Buenos Aires.


BA street art.


Walter and Alex; ‘los compadres’.


With Caro (C) and Pato.


Smoking causes impotency! Death pales in comparison!


A day with Caro and Luis.


Church is for praying not legislating. Umm, yep!


With Diego (L) and Fernando (R) at Chascomus.


With the guy that’s able to put a smile on my dial daily.


With Charo (L) and her mum Gladys (R).


Buenos Aires.


Colon Theatre, Buenos Aires.

We came, we ate, we shopped … Bangkok style

I want that Barbie t-shirt!

We had a mission in Bangkok !  To eat good food and shop! Whilst the food in Myanmar was palatable and at times even delicious (particularly the veggie dishes), it really had nothing on Thai food.  Bangkok has, in many ways, become a home away from home, as we now know where to stay, where to shop and what to buy!

We had a mission, and we were going to accomplish eat … eat well and shop! We only had a couple of days, but our mission was clear!

I have written about Bangkok ad nauseum in other posts, so this one will tell the story with photos (more than usual, anyway).

Enjoy!

Ombi

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything”. – Albert Einstein

Thailand wants democracy, and they want it now!

The Bangkok protests.

The people of Thailand speak out.

There ain’t a revolution without technology!

The people of Thailand want to be heard!
Not what I’d call my accessory store.

Face book thongs in Khao San Rd.

A bit of shopping … a bit of coconut ice-cream.

Rattanakosin Festival. Bangkok.

Rattanakosin Festival. Bangkok.

Rattanakosin Festival. Bangkok.
Holding up the fort, Bangkok.


My kinda t-shirt!

Face cream!!??
Takeaway Pad Thai at Bangkok Airport … till we meet again.

Shopping at Chatachuk.

On to Mandalay and a Bagan New Year!

The streets of central Mandalay.

We had been told not to go to Mandalay; that it was dusty and dirty and nothing more than a big town!  It was, however, the last royal capital of Burma, and I personally felt compelled to go there. We loved it!  Yes, it was dusty and dirty, but if you took the time to explore it really did contain some veritable treasures. We spent a great few days there, exploring both on foot and on the back of a motorbike. We stayed at the Rich Queen Guest House!  Nothing like a rich queen, hey! It was quiet and comfortable, yet right in the centre of Mandalay, near the central market.

Mandalay central market.

Smack bang in the centre of town, our guest house was virtually on top of the central market, which was abuzz with action from the early hours of the morning until dusk. We wandered around there several times in the course of our stay doing everything from eating, observing and buying. The natural focus of the city is an abrupt hill, rising above a vast moated and walled square. Once upon a time it contained a sprawling royal city but nowadays it is the reconstructed Mandalay Palace. Mostly an out-of-bounds area of military encampments, we certainly were not prepared to hand over some of our money to the Burmese government to see a smidgeon (of what they wanted us to see!) of the inside. We were quite happy to hire some bikes and go around the outside, observing daily life, the sunset and some other great temples surrounding it.

Mahamuni Pagoda.

Our Mandalay highlight, without a doubt, was the day that we both spent on the back of a motorbike taking in the many spectacular sights around the city. Myaung and Pho Se were just the best tour guides, not only taking us around but giving an amazing commentary everywhere we went.  They both had a great sense of humour and had us laughing the whole way. We started at 8.00am and finished at 7.00pm.  We came ‘home’ exhausted but satisfied!  First off was the Mahamuni Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s most famous. Even in the early hours people were scuttling about, praying and observing.  Alex had a chance to see the famous and highly venerated 13 foot high Buddha image, which many locals believe is 2000 years old. Over the years so much gold leaf has been applied by the (male only!) faithful that the figure is now entirely covered in a knobbly six inch layer of pure gold!

Mahamuni Pagoda.

Mandalay stone carvers.

Close by was the marble stone carving.  It was amazing to watch so many people chip, blast and polish away in order to create Buddha images of all shapes and sizes, but I could not help but wonder what the fine dust was doing to their lungs!  OH & S … what’s that! We then continued on to the bronze casting area, which was basically the bronze version of the marble version!  All done by hand too. We then visited a couple of monasteries and even a nunnery. They were all very interesting and the number of rules they adhere to is quite impressive (if that’s the word). Not the life for me, I must say! But then I am not really one for rules, am I?

Mandalay sits on the Ayeyarawady River, and as you cross over it you cannot help but be blown away by the visual impact of Sagaing’s uncountable white and gold stupas. They shimmer alluringly on a series of hills that

Saigang as seen on the back of a motorbike.

rise above the almost flat town centre of Mandalay behind. A steep walk up to the top of one of the pagodas (not for the faint or the weak hearted!) provided us with an amazing view over the sparkling pagodas, which apart from being an assault on the senses, looked like a highly polished 22 carat gold necklace. Sagaing is also known as the ‘Buddhist Land’ or ‘Religious City’ due to the many stupas in a relatively small area.

The infamous U-Bein Bridge.

Our guides also took us to a number of less-known attractions as we not only wanted to see the path less travelled, but we did not want to pay money to the government by going in to the main attractions. Often, we were the only ones there! We did, however, go to Amarapura, which is famous for U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge. It gently curves around the shallow Taungthaman Lake, creating one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites.  It is said that the best time to visit is just after sunrise when hundreds of villagers and monks commute back and forth across it.  We, however, went for the sunset.  It was absolutely chockers and thronging with tourists. Our guides, however, took us underneath it, and showed us a different side … fishermen, people having wedding photos taken, kids swimming. They managed to make a touristy experience into a not so touristy one.  They had certainly worked us out! Tourists aside, it was impressive indeed!

Our Muslim roti hangout in Mandalay.

And so our day on the back of a motorbike was coming to an end.  As we made our way home, I contemplated life, with the wind blowing through my hair, or was that over my helmet and into my face! How lucky I am to be able to live the life I live! I felt at peace and I felt happy! We arrived back at the guest house exhausted, and thanked our guides profusely. I am not sure who was happier and more stoked … them or us! We were hungry so we went out to find a bite to eat. We had previously found a Muslim set-up on the road (quite literally!) that made cheap rotis and curries, and made our way over for a quick meal.  Small tables and even smaller chairs by the side of the road, we shovelled the yummy food in.

Our last day in Mandalay was spent seeing a few more of the local sights and meeting some new fun people, like Teresia and Fred from Swaustralia (is that what you call Swedes that have lived in Australia for ten years?) and their friend Jenni from Scotland. They would be going on to Bagan and so would we.  Maybe we would see them there.

Mandalay Palace.

Time was flying. Bagan would be our last stop and the place where we would spend our New Year.

Horses, carts and temples of Bagan.

I said a Bagan New Year not a bogan one! Whilst our bus ride from Hsipaw from Bagan was Winner Guest House. The owner is obviously very used to these ridiculous-o-clock arrivals, and so greeted us with a  smile, a cup of tea and lit a fire by the roadside for us.  Minties moment!
comfortable, we did indeed arrive at ridiculous-o-clock, just before 3am!  There were a number of horse and carts (famous in Bagan) and other forms of transport ready to take people to their hotels. Let’s face it, what are the other options at 3am? We knew that we were only a couple of kilometres away and so Alex and I decided to walk it.  Myanmar is generally an extremely safe country and the centre of Bagan not that big at all. The walk was quiet and peaceful and some of the temples were lit up, so it all looked very impressive and felt rather overwhelming. It was another one of those travellers’ moments where I not only felt so very grateful to be alive bit so honoured and thankful that we were able to do this!  I constantly remind myself of how fortunate I am able to be able to travel to the places I do, and see things that the very locals I visit cannot. In no time at all we arrived at

Sunrise over Bagan.

Famous for both its sunrises and sunsets we decided to do both, not initially in one day, but that’s how it turned out! After a relaxing hour at Winner we decided to take a horse and cart and go and see the sunrise; so off we went in the early hours of the morning to Shwesandaw Pagoda.  The tourists were arriving in throngs, with the same aim as us, to take some photos from a spot that is renowned for both its sunrises and sunsets. This pagoda  not only offers mind-blowing views of the many temples that fill the surrounding valleys, but it’s also a spectacular spot to view the hot-air balloons that set off very close by.  Balloons over Bagan is possibly one of the most exotic hot air balloon experiences in the world.  If that’s your gig book well in advance and start saving your pennies! Alex and I were content with seeing them and not being in them … this time!

Out and about in Bagan.

We came back to Winner hungry but feeling exhilarated. After some brekkie and a shower, and feeling somewhat reinvigorated, we set off by bike to see what we’d come here for … temples, temples and more temples in a place that can only be described as a temple wonderland! Over the next few days we would see these countless temples on foot, bicycle and electric bike too. Beside highways and rickety train tracks amble ox carts through rice fields and rolling plains, all rimmed by the Shan Mountains to the east and the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River to the west, conjuring up scenes that hark back centuries.  There were big temples, small temples, hidden temples, fancy temples, discreet temples, crumbling temples, all having something to offer. We often found that the hidden, more discreet ones were the most fascinating, as the local gatekeepers would come out, unlock them and tell us a story. On our first night we ended up back at the Shwensandaw Pagoda, along with throngs of tourists, viewing the sunset. Different, but equally as spectacular as the sunrise.  Needless to say, that night we were buggered and slept like babies!

Laquerware factory in Bagan.

Whilst in Bagan we also visited a couple of laquerware factories and shops.  The way in which they cut and weave the bamboo and then laquer it is amazing. It’s quite an intricate process and to watch the several steps involved is very interesting.  From tiny bowls, to huge vases, we saw them ply away at their craft. Found a coffee-shop-stop at the Black Bamboo; great coffee but overpriced and overrated food. Of course we didn’t eat the food, we just wanted a good coffee!

With the Swaustralians and others on New Year’s.

The New Year was approaching … we had bumped into Teresia, Fred and Jenni again, and we decided to meet up at a place called Aroma 2.  The night started with some drinks a few doors down (as they were cheaper!) and then ended up at Aroma. There was a fire going in the middle and the music was pumping.  We all got into it and had a dance. Into the groove … and not the fire that is!  Met some really good fun people that night as well as bumping into others that we had met in the weeks before and so had a really enjoyable night.  The countdown was on …
10,9,8, 7,6,5,4,3,2,1 … Happy New Year!!!! And the fire crackers went off! Dangerous?!  Not any more so than people dancing around (and not falling into) a fire!!! By 1.00am we were virtually being pushed out and told to leave!  Keep in mind that the surrounding places had long closed and that the New Year is not particularly significant nor celebratable in Myanmar. The taxi drivers were asking for an obscene amount to drive the short distance to our guest house, so Alex and I decided to walk; coupled with the fact that we were totally sober and that Myanmar is generally safe at all hours, we felt comfortable doing so. Arrived safely and went straight to bed.

The things you find in temples!

Our last day in Bagan was perhaps a bit more cruisy than the others. We would be taking an overnight bus to Yangon, and our flight back to Bangkok would be leaving the next night. Our bus would leave at 4.00am and be getting into Yangon at ridiculous-o-clock (yet again). On the bus we bumped into our French friend Fabian; he’d been in Bagan too but we had not seen him. The bus ride was comfortable enough, and low and behold, there we were at the Yangon bus station just before 5.00am the next morning.  Despite it being very early morning, the bus station was thronging with people. Fabien was going to Bangkok on the same flight as us, so we all negotiated a ride to the airport in a songthaew  (passenger pick up). We decided that it simply would not have been worth going into the centre of Yangon, finding a place to store our bags and then coming back to the airport; the centre was an hour away from the bus station whilst the airport was reasonably close to the bus station.

Eating up before we fly out of Yangon.

OMG!  I thought I was going to die! Seriously!  Our driver was driving like a psycho!  We all concurred that he was either drug or alcohol affected.  We asked him to slow down but he seemed to laugh it off!  I am the most easy going passenger but this time I wondered if we were going to make it to the airport alive!  Every minute seemed like an hour and that ten minute ride had felt like the longest ten minutes of my life! We got off that passenger truck and I was shaking. We handed over our money, ‘thanked’ the driver and walked off. Big breath in, big breath out.  I was standing and I was alive!

Goodbye Yangon and Myanmar!

That day at the airport was a very long and boring one.  With only a couple of places to buy coffee and only one to buy food, we just sat down, relaxed, chatted and walked around the very small airport … several times. An exercise in how to occupy yourself indeed! Finally, it was time to fly. Bangkok here we come!

Ombi

“Love is joy. Don’t convince yourself that suffering is part of it. ” – Paulo Coelho

Next: Last few days dining and shopping in Bangkok.

Bronze casting.

Inside a monastery.
International Buddhist University School.

Lacquerware.
Thet Kyadi Thay nunnery.

Mandalay central market.

Monks.

View from the top of Saigang Hill.

Around Saigang.
One of the lesser seen temples around Mandalay.
Life beneath the U-Bein Bridge.

Our tour guides, Myaung and Pho Se.

Tranquility at a lesser viewed temple.

Locals hanging around the temples.

How some of the others live …children in Mandalay.
Mandalay Palace.
Alex with the local kids, by the river in Mandalay.
The many temples of Mandalay.
Sunrise at the infamous Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Back again … sunset at the Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Inside one of the many temples of Bagan.
Burmese chime.
Selfies with the locals of Bagan.
Bagan.

Taung Paw Teik Pagoda.

Praying at the temple, Bagan.
The many faces of Bagan.
Partying with the lovely Fabienne from Switzerland!

Umbrella making.

A hill tribe Christmas

Hsipaw early morning fresh produce market.

Seriously, what bus gets into … anywhere … at 3.30am! Talk about all dressed up and nowhere to go! The bus dumped the three of us (we were travelling with our French friend Fabien) somewhere on the side of the road in the little hamlet of Hsipaw. We had a map and so the three of us navigated our way to Mr Charles Guest House.  It didn’t take us long to get there, but everything was still very quiet and the gates to the hotel closed.  We tried to quietly get someone’s attention, and after ten minutes or so, someone finally let us in.  What to do? We relaxed for an hour or so, and then walked over to Hsipaw’s fresh produce market, which starts at 4.30am.  We were not going to be able to check in until much later, so we figured we may as well use our time wisely.


Hsipaw early morning fresh produce market.
Whilst I do love markets, getting up at the crack of dawn is not generally something that excites me.  But here we were … the market was lit up by low-level lighting, and people were selling all types of fresh produce from veggies and hers to chicken and meat.  It was great to walk along, observe and get caught up in the market atmosphere.  What does infuriate me, however, are the tourists that treat such a magic moment as a ‘freak show photo opportunity’! I wanted to say, “Dudes, get that camera out of their faces!” We are always mindful of this, even if it means getting blurry or distant shots.  Show a bit of respect!

Namtok Waterfall.
Once back at the guest house and checked in, we had some brekkie and then went for a walk around town and then on to a  beautiful walk through rice fields, general country living and the gorgeous Namtok Waterfall. This was a world away from the world as we know it … country people happily doing their country thing with smiles on their faces and a hearty ‘mingalaba’ (hello) … where did we get it wrong!  I felt happy, inspired, rejuvenated, at peace … it can only be described as that magical ‘traveller’s minties moment’ that travellers know so well!

That evening we also visited the Shan Palace, which was where the last Shan Prince lived before he was abducted by the military. It is now lived in by his nephew and family. A family member, Fern, was most keen to chat to us, show us pictures and tell us what had happened.  Even only a year ago this would not have been possible and the nephew was actually jailed for speaking to foreigners. Indeed Myanmar is changing at lightning speed!

Hill tribe kids around Hsipaw.
We had heard that the trekking in Hsipaw was amazing; that it was like the hill tribe treks in
northern thailand 20 years ago! I remember doing that trek in Thailand 20 years ago and loving it, then going back ten years later to see how much had changed (not for the better – welcome to the freak show!).  Would a trek here capture the magic that I remembered from 20 years ago?  Along with Fabien we organised an overnight trek from the guest house. Leaving the next morning, it would be just the three of us and our guide Kyaw-Kyaw (pronounced Jo-Jo). We left on the 24 December and came back on Christmas day. What an amazing two days!  Our knowledgeable guide took us through valleys, fields and villages which offered simple people and spectacular views. This is what it feels like to be truly alive!  I felt so incredibly lucky. Coffee stops (not so nice and in wooden huts), playing with the kids and observing the general living of the various tribes were the highlights.  The main villages we passed through were either Shan or Palau.

Palau lady cooking dinner.
I must say that whilst the Burmese food did not blow me away (too oily and too many fried things), the fresh veggies were amazing, and the way in which the villagers cooked them was amazing.  On both days, our lunch was amazing.  Indeed, my favourite food in Myanmar was on this trek. Christmas Eve (keeping in mind that it’s not celebrated in this Buddhist country) was spent in a basic, sparse wooden hut, with a Palau villager cooking us dinner and her young son who said nothing as part of his training as was robed in monk’s attire. This child, however, had the most amazing energy!  We all sat around the open fireplace drinking tea as the mother cooked and the child watched.  Priceless! This family was totally unaware of the commercial fracas that would be occurring in our own countries at this very time. I felt totally at peace!  These people seemed to have so little and yet they had so much.  We, on the other hand, have so much, but in many other ways so little! When the lady finished cooking she retreated into a corner and started chanting … in the same room as we were in; it was the only space she had! These are the moments that have shaped the way I think about the world in which I live.

Getting breakfast ready.
I had the most peaceful night’s sleep, and woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through our window. Again, we were cooked a hearty and healthy breakfast, of mainly vegetables.  I observed the red dusty floor outside (no roads!) and the way in which the villagers had to walk to the well to get the water. The amenities were basic, electricity virtually nonexistent and yet the people always offered a smile! This was a world away from my own! We said our goodbyes and I thanked our host profusely. “Please come back again. You are welcome here anytime”, she told us through our guide. Perhaps, I thought, but there are so many other places I need to see in this lifetime!

Palau school room.
And so, on Christmas Day, we made our way back to Hsipaw … it was like any other day to the villagers we met and waved to along the way.  We stopped at a school in one of the villages, and I could not help but notice how bare their classroom was in comparison to ours.  In fact the school was only one classroom! I thought about the kids over here whinging, whining and complaining about not wanting to go to school … they needed to be looking at this! A happy little bunch they were, but how many of them would progress and get the education they deserve? An issue close to my heart; education (along with health) is the only true way forward.

Just after midday we were met by a pick up which took us to some ‘natural hot springs’. OMG (I am going to sound like a ‘precious tourist’ now!) … the ‘hot springs’ were two concrete boxes (one for the men and another for the women) filled with people scrubbing every single bit of their bodies (in the water!!!) as well as other bits that I did not know existed!  This was surrounded by food stands and lots and lots of rubbish!  Did we want to go in? Fat chance!! Was I sure? Absolutely!  I could well and truly wait for a shower when we got back to the guest house! Back by 5pm, we thanked Kyo-Kyo profusely, for our amazing experience. The evening was spent relaxing. Tomorrow we would take it easy and catch the overnight bus to Bagan, which of course would be arriving at ridiculous-o-clock once again!

Relaxing at Pontoon Cafe.
I must mention Pontoon Coffee run by the very affable Maureen, an Australian who has been living
here for some 15 years.  We had heard about this place on the grapevine, and I must say the coffee was excellent. Whilst culture immersion is important to me, my weakness is good (actually excellent) coffee!

Ombi

Next: A Bagan New Year

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever” – Mahatma Gandhi
Alex and Fabien in the fields around Hsipaw.

Hsipaw early morning fresh produce market.

Hsipaw early morning fresh produce market.


Laundry, Hsipaw.

Home cooking, Hsipaw.
‘Washing machine’, Hsipaw.
The only mosque in Hsipaw.
With Fern at the Shan Palace, Hsipaw.
Working the fields, Hsipaw.
Hill tribe baby.
Our guide, Kyo-Kyo and a hill tribe toddler.
Alex hangin’ out with the village kids.
Hill tribe school kids
Fabien shows a little kid a picture of herself.
This is the way we build a house!
Hill tribe kid teaching Alex about ‘how to entertain oneself’!
Trekking and contemplating.
Hello sunshine!
Life in a Palau Village.

Hsipaw.

Hsipaw transport!
Great shakes at Mr Shake’s, Hsipaw.
Around Hsipaw.
Back from our trek; exhausted but happy.
Fruit and veggies, Hsipaw.
River li, Hsipaw.
Chinese temple, Hsipaw.
Barber store, 

Drying out corn, Hsipaw.
Noodle factory, Hsipaw.

Some say Myanmar … some say Burma

Flying over central Australia en route to Bangkok, via KL.

With only a couple of months behind me since I’d been to Thailand, oops, I was doing it again! Well, actually, Alex and I would do a few days in Bangkok, followed by a little over two weeks Myanmar (Burma) followed by a final last few days in Bangkok (read … I really wanted to make sure I got to the infamous Chatachuk market). Myanmar or Burma?  That would require a post (or two) unto itself!

Ombi, Thai coffee and Nu Deang.

Having just secured a new job, and with both Alex and I having a couple of weeks off over Christmas, we decided to get away. What better way to spend our ‘free time’ than travelling? Around the festive season there is no such thing as a cheap ticket, so we did our best by buying a Melbourne-Bangkok return and a Bangkok-Yangon (capital of Myanmar) return with Air Asia. To be frank (would you expect anything less from me?); I love bypassing the festive debacle. As much as I love my family, I love ‘missing out on’ the presents, the hype, the commercialism, and a tradition I find overwhelmingly outdated. I secretly, well perhaps not so secretly, wish that we could make a bigger effort with people between New Year and Christmas and not just the few days between Christmas and the New Year! Slap! That was me slapping me off my bandwagon! Oh yes, back to the trip!

Loaded with two weeks worth of a brilliant handover notes at my new job, I jumped onto the plane exhausted.  I had spent most of the last week trying to get ready inbetween trying to take in lots of new information. Does it come as any surprise that I fell asleep before take-off?

With Link’s family and baby Sean.

Thailand is easy for both Alex and I; we have done it so many times that it really has become second nature.  We would both be going to Pong and Link’s house together, for a couple of days. These are the gorgeous friends I stayed with when I was here on my last trip.  Land, pick up bags, go through passport control, grab a taxi, go to Pong and Link’s.  The roads have improved considerably in the last couple of decades, and especially when it’s not peak hour, getting around Bangkok is a breeze. We were there in no time at all, with Pong, Link and Nu Deang there to greet us with open arms.  Nu Deang came out and gave me a big hug; she  remembered me as I had been there only recently.  She recognised Alex too as we had spoken to him several times on skype. Nu Deang took me to see her baby brother Sean; he had most certainly grown in only a couple of months.  What a cutie!

Bangkok haircut!

The next couple of days really were lots of fun!  Good times and good food with Pong, Link and both of their families. Alex and I would not make it to Kanchanaburi to visit Pong’s parents this time, but they came to us. I also managed to fit in a haircut with the lady that I had it cut by last time I was here. Ten minutes and done!  I love it!  I am one of those ‘cut my hair and let me get out’ kinda gals!  Don’t want to hear your problems, or your whingeing, just cut my hair and let me leave!

December is a lovely time to be in Bangkok as the humidity is low and the temperature pleasant. Pity I did not do my homework on Myanmar though … more on that later! Loaded with tummies full of great food, and hearts and minds full of good times, we were off to Myanmar. After hugs all around we jumped into a taxi and were on our way to the airport. A new adventure awaited us! Myanmar here we come!

On the way from the Yangon Airport to Downtown.

As I mentioned, we had barely done any research, with only a Myanmar Lonely Planet in tow. All I knew was that tourism was booming and that the accommodation, and  many other prices, were also outdated. Oh well, I had the right clothes (!!) with me and we were used to wingin’ it. So, here goes. The flight to Yangon was short and painless and after a little over an hour we found ourselves in Yangon.  Let the journey begin!

In practice this was my second trip to Myanmar, in theory my first.  In the mid 90s I remember doing a ‘half day tour’ from somewhere in the south of Thailand, because … well, it was not really the done thing then, and well, I could!  All I remember was that it rained and rained, the temples looked different and that the people seemed very poor!  Having said that Thailand too was very different back then. With some fleeting memories, I wondered how Myanmar would stack up in 2013!

Burmese vendor with the infamous Thanaka on her face.

We had at least booked our first few nights in Yangon and would be staying at the Hninn Si Budget Inn. We had organised this from Australia, including a free pick up from the airport. Samsun, our driver, was there to meet us, and in the 30 minutes or so it took to drive us in, we learnt some basic Burmese. Mingalaba (hello) and Gesu ve (thank you) would be used many, many times over on this trip. This was exciting! I felt like a little kid, as I stared at the surroundings as Samsun taught us Burmese and explained what we were looking at. Very different to Thailand.  Most definitely poorer. My appreciation of Myanmar after our two week stay would be ‘it’s what Thailand was like 20 years ago’.

Myanmar street food.

We arrived at the hotel, and settled in; very basic, but very clean. The number of visitors to Myanmar is comparatively small compared to her neighbours, which is primarily due to its current political situation. After the military junta transferred power to a civilian government in 2011, the tourism sector saw a massive increase and in 2012, for the first time in the history of the nation, tourists numbered more than a million.  It is believed that this more than doubled in 2013. So, we were living the change. One side effect of this lightning speed growth and change is that prices for things such as accommodation, transport and tour services have more than doubled in a period one to two years. We had also read that ATMs were virtually non-existent and that only crisp, off-the-press US dollar notes would be accepted. Not that we felt overly comfortable carrying a wad of US dollars, but it did not seem like we had much choice.  Once there, we found that although not common, it was not impossible to find the odd ATM. As I mentioned, we were living the change that is occurring in Myanmar right now!

Holding up the Sule Pagoda.

We spent a couple of days in Yangon, taking in some amazing sights, such as the Sule and Shwedagon pagodas. The former is a spectacular temple which was within walking distance of our accommodation. Surrounded by government buildings and commercial shops, it’s not every city whose primary traffic circle is occupied by a 2000-year-old golden temple. It is particularly beautiful at dusk and indeed very atmospheric.  We did not actually go inside as we had to pay … and considering the way in which the country spends its money, Alex and I were very cautious about paying out!  Whilst Myanmar is a geographically beautiful country, populated by gentle people, it is also notorious for its human rights abuses, so we wanted to ensure that as little of our money as possible was going to the government, via things such as entry fees to temples! I almost lost my marbles when we were told that we had to pay USD $8.00 to get into the Shwedagon Pagoda. Whilst it is the ‘Burmese Mecca’ and arguably the most famous and impressive religious structure in the entire country, I was incensed at the thought of where my money would possibly go. In a country where wages are around USD $40-$50 per month, I found the $8.00 entry fee ludicrous! Come in ‘toursist’ spinner! Breathe in, breathe out … after a little tiff with Alex, in we went … it was swarming with tourists and I was trying not to do a head count and tally the government’s profits! I just have to let some things go!

Shwedagon Pagoda.

I should explain that whilst Myanmar’s currency is the kyat (pronounced chat), that the country also uses the American dollar … nice clean and crisp notes thank you very much!  The exchange rate is approximately just under 1000 kyats to the US dollar.

Shwedagon Pagoda.

I must say despite my little hissy fit, I did enjoy the Shwedagon Pagoda; it is indeed a spectacular sight. We went there in the later part of the afternoon as it morphed from a glittering bright gold to a crimson gold and orange as the sun casts its last rays. Despite the number of people and my initial trauma, I was still bedazzled with the visual intoxication it provided me with. As the masses poised their cameras to take the usual touristy shots, I walked around and tried to take in the peace and tranquility of the beautiful temple away from the maddening crowds. I had found my peace!

The many faces of Myanmar, Yangon.

Over the next couple of days we casually walked around taking in everything from ports to Musmeah Yeshua, Yangon’s only Jewish synagogue; people watching, of course, was the compulsory activity. The sprawling mess of the Bogyoke Aung San Market was in the mix … markets always are! Myanmar, despite its recent surge of tourism is still very much a third world country. The roads desperately need repairing, the footpaths are often pot-holed viewing platforms for the sewerage and mosquitos that live below and most cars would not … have passed a basic inspection … 20 years ago.  But it’s the people that really captured our hearts!  Always a smile which became even broader when we would say hello in Burmese! I could not help but wonder if this would all change when the country would be ‘permanently damaged’ by tourism.  By the end of our time in this country, we would note that it was like Thailand 20 years ago. With change always comes the good, the bad and the ugly! Myanmar … watch this space!

Alex’s doppelganger, on the stop over to Inle Lake.

Our next stop would be the placid Inle Lake, in Shan State, an overnight bus ride from Yangon. I must mention that whilst relatively comfortable, the overnight buses in Myanmar would rock up at their destinations at really odd hours, like 3 or 4am in the morning.  What does one do at this hour? And speaking of buses and the likes … we took a taxi to the Yangon bus terminal, which was some 45 minutes away from the centre, to encounter a bus city!  Seriously, this place was an entity unto itself!  I had never seen anything like it … buses, people, cars and food stands everywhere! It was indeed a small city. We ended up on a VIP bus to Nyaungshwe near the edge of the lake, which was three seats, rather than the usual four, across. Very comfortable, but freezing!  Hello Kitty had never looked so good; the blankets provided were thick, warm and well, very Hello Kitty! We met Fabienne and Jochen, a fun Swiss/ German couple who we chatted, laughed and had a middle-of-the-night food break with. Crazy young travellers like us, note the young! Check out their blog. We tried to sleep through the cold, but I struggled as I found it uncomfortably cold.  When we arrived at Nyaungshwe in the early hours of the morning, I understood why … not only had the bus been cold, but it was very chilly outside … as in mist chilly! When I had looked at temperatures across Myanmar, I had looked at the top temperatures, but not the bottom ones.  We were going to have some cold mornings and nights in this place!

Lake Inle countryside.

We had booked Remember Inn Hotel from Yangon the night before, and once off the bus we made our way there. A thin veil of mist covered the town (and us!) as we walked the short distance to our destination. Sure it was peak tourist season but in Myanmar we never really felt bombarded by by people and tourists. We had not made any advance bookings as we did not really have an itinerary; the plan of action was to book only a night or two in advance, once we had worked out where our next stop would actually be. Sometimes we got a place first pop, and other times it would take a few goes. Luckily, all the places we chose (again, what would we do without mobile technology and the capacity to review potential places!?) were comfortable and clean. Over our two weeks we would pay between USD$20.00 and $40.00 per night with $25-30 being an average (double bed and private bathroom). This has apparently more than doubled in the last couple of years.  This is what we call progress!

Our boat on Lake Inle.
Weaver, Inle Lake.

Nyaungshwe has grown into a bustling traveller centre, and this place is probably as close as Myanmar gets to having a backpacker scene. And with a backpacker scene comes good coffee … of course I found some! We even found a restaurant that made great soup and veggie dishes; Wa Toat became our local! On paper, Inle Lake is about 22 kilometres long and 11 kilometres wide, but it really is hard to tell where the lake finishes and the marshes start. In any case, it is obligatory, almost a rite of passage, to do the Inle Lake longboat trip. The drivers of the boats will almost certainly find you, before you find them. Indeed we were approached by many, and in the end we went with an affable guy called Kyo-Kyo (pronounced Jo-Jo). So, we spent a day on the lake, looking and stopping at everything from stilt-house villages and floating gardens to lotus weaving and cheroot (a type of cigar) making. And then there were monasteries (including the famous jumping cat one, but there didn’t appear to be any cats, let alone jumping ones!), temples and pagodas.  There are a number of tribes and groups in the country, and the Lake is renowned for the Intha technique of leg rowing, where one leg is wrapped around the paddle to drive the blade through the water. The balancing act is amazing to watch!

Market day in Nyaungshwe.

We also happened to be in Nyaungshwe on its big market day, where hill tribe people come from around the surrounding areas to sell their wares and food. I had a mission … to buy another jumper!  My legs were OK in the only pants I had, Thai Fisherman’s pants, but I just needed that extra layer up top for boat trips, early mornings, late nights and bus trips.  I picked myself up a lovely little grey number.  In fact, so lovely that I only ever wore it inside out! The style was acceptable, the print on it was not! Well, it’s certainly better than being cold!

We were going to visit Mandalay next, but we’d heard of a little place called Hsipaw up north, that was supposed to not be very touristy as well as being a great place to do some hill-tribe trekking … the kind of trekking that was available in northern Thailand years ago before the masses descended. With a flexible itinerary and no firm plans, we decided that that would be our next stop. So, we booked our ticket and were off without further ado.

The infamous fishermen of Inle Lake.

As usual, the bus would arrive at its final destination at a really odd time … 3am!  We tried to choose the bus that left latest but that made little, if any, difference. We met a great French guy, Fabien, at the bus station as we were leaving Nyangshwe.  We would end up at the same guest house in Hsipaw and in fact on the same hill tribe trek. We actually met some lovely travellers not only around the Inle Lake area but around Myanmar in general.  We noticed that it was a bit more of a mature travellers set and that there were very few young, say under 25s, around. I feel Myanmar just takes that little bit more to navigate and it most certainly isn’t party central.  If it’s a party you want you are certainly ‘barking up the wrong country’!

Ombi

Next: An ‘uncommercial’ Christmas in Hsipaw, Mandalay and New Year in Bagan.

“The amount of love and good feelings you have at the end of your life is equal to the love and good feelings you put out during your life” – Anonymous

Somewhere over central Australia.

Alex and baby Sean.

Ombi and Nu Deang.

With Link’s mother.
Myanmar … moving forward!
This is how we wire our house,! Yangon.
Alex enjoying Shan soup in Yangon.
OH&S eat your heart out, Yangon.

Local Thai coffee at Pong and Link’s local market.
Leaving Melbourne Airport, with the obligatory coffee.
Nu Deang with Pong’s parents.

Downtown Yangon.

Temples of Yangon.

Market food, Yangon.

The many faces of Myanmar, Yangon.
Free wireless at the temple; how times have changed!

No money to pay your USD $8.00 entry fee?  Do not fear!
Outside mosque, Yangon.

One of the many mosques in Yangon.
The many faces of Myanmar, Yangon.
Downtown Yangon with sule Pagoda in background.
Reading the morning paper, Yangon.
Nyaungshwe morning market, Inle Lake.
Nyaungshwe morning market, Inle Lake.
Nyaungshwe morning market, Inle Lake.
Chicken anyone? Morning market, Inle.
Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake.
Nyaungshwe.
Nyaungshwe lady. 
Washing time, Nyaungshwe.
Around Inle Lake.
The wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round.
Sunset, around Nyaungshwe.
Around the Nyaungshwe countryside.
Nyaungshwe lady.
Seamstresses, Nyaungshwe market.