Fiji with friends

After my very brief stopover at home two weeks ago it was on to Sydney for a day before flying out to Nadi. Of course, as my mother was Fijian and half of my relatives live there, I have visited numerous times before (see my last trip here), but this was the first time I was taking a group of friends along to experience the country with myself as 'tour guide'.

Wanting to show the guys some of the best spots in Fiji during our short stay our itinerary was jam packed, including a visit to our village (where everyone went to church and were a source of fascination for the kids), a picnic lunch with snorkelling around the side of our island, a stay on Fiji's "garden island" Taveuni with it's waterfalls and natural slide, and paddle boarding at Wailoaloa Beach in Nadi. Not to mention the amazing hospitality shown to our guests by my family, who ensured in true Fijian style we were VERY well fed, and of course my favourite reason for going home - seeing my gorgeous little cousins!


Pai, Chiang Mai, & the end of living the Asian dream (for now)

Over twenty-four hours in transit, three flights and two micro naps later, I've arrived back in scorching Brisvegas. It's nice to be home, though the peace shan't last long - I'm flying to Sydney on Tuesday (tomorrow!) then going to Fiji on Wednesday on a trip with a group of friends. Like they say there's truly no rest for the wicked, and the day after I arrive back it's straight into uni classes. It's then I think reality will REALLY hit me.

After an activity-/transit-filled few weeks I am glad to say I spent my final two weeks in Thailand just chillin', in Pai and Chiang Mai.

Lonely Planet takes the liberty to describe Pai as "a state of mind". This MAY be a slight spot of hyperbole (but hey, when has LP ever been guilty of that?), as Pai isn't an existential settlement you need to astrally project yourself into. It's merely a pleasant little hipster enclave buried deep in the northern Thai ranges close to the Burmese border. Food is tasty and cheap, while souvenirs and touristy activities are in abundance.

Here we spent an entire week 'taking a break from taking a break'. When not languishing in the bungalow, grazing or lazing by the river, we ventured out on a hired scooter to take in the local sights. (For the record I felt very unsafe and insecure on the buzzing, foot lever-less little death trap and will stick to motorbikes in future, thank you very much.)

The surrounding valley is quite literally a cool change from the rest of Thailand I have visited, being forested mainly by deciduous trees in varying hues of yellow and red. The nights get surprisingly chilly and I'd heartily recommend that anyone going take a jumper.

Pai is a nice place to veg out and do as little or as much as you'd like at a comfortable pace. However, I do warn those with low hipster tolerance levels to be extra cautious: if dreadlocks, tribal tattoos, fishermen pants or a girl in a midriff top carrying a hula hoop down the street and every so often lazily dancing through it sound like too much for you, you may wish to reconsider making this particular journey.

Our digs:

Spotted at a local burger shop of high esteem, Burger Queen:

The Pai War Memorial Bridge:

Looking into Pai's answer to the Grand Canyon, Pai Canyon:
This collective at the falls chose to bring their own guitar AND tambourine:


If you think I didn't get up to much in Pai, I was phoning it in for most of the time in Chiang Mai. We stayed in the old section of the city which is very tourist-focussed, and the noise coming from the drunks and miscellany of the streets late at night was unbelievable.

Just a few photos from wanders about:

Finally, this bird was so pompous I couldn't help but laugh:


Hey, Mandalay

It was with little more knowledge about the place than "Mandalay, sounds alright" that I arrived in the city. I met a guy named Koko who had a motorbike taxi and agreed to take me out around all the sights. Mandalay was one of the old capitals of the Kingdom of Burma, the very last before the British booted the King out and colonised the place. Burmese kings of old had a habit of moving their capitals every few generations, and close by are ancient  former capitals Amarapura and Inwa.

Koko had a pretty tight itinerary that it seemed he'd perfected over time. We zipped to a gold leaf workshop, Maha Muni Temple with its highly revered statue of Buddha believed to be one only a few constructed during his lifetime (women are not allowed to enter the main chamber), and some textile workshops. 

Next it was off to Amarapura to see 1,500 monks have their breakfast at the Mahagandayon monastery. Although seeing the lines of monks with their bowls was impressive, I was very interested in the busloads of older tourists that didn't seem to care about making the men feel uncomfortable by thrusting gigantic lenses up in their faces.

Our next stop was Sagaing Hill, which I'd spotted on the bus ride into the city. This enormous hill on the banks of the Ayarwady River is dotted all over with golden stupas and my photo simply does not do it justice, partly due to the smog drifting across from the city.

Apparently the thing to do is climb this hill and take a picture from the summit, which I can tell you is no mean feat. Koko gave me a cheerful "See you in fifteen, twenty minutes!" as he planted himself in the restaurant at the bottom of the enormous flight of stairs. After much huffing, puffing and swearing (I'm not as young as I once was) my seemingly epic climb was completed. 

My next port of call was the old capital Inwa, accessible by a quick boat trip across the river onto an island, and hiring a pony trap around the dirt tracks. Everyone there seemed very businesslike and it was my first uncomfortable experience with a more aggressive haggling scenario in the country. There were some great old monasteries and temples there (the teak one at Bagaya Kyaung especially) but for the rest of the afternoon I couldn't shake off the memory of the unpleasant interaction I'd had with some of the people there .

At this point my camera committed the ultimate betrayal as the battery died just as we arrived back in Amarapura at the famous U Bein Bridge. Spanning a distance of 1.2km, it claims the enviable title (?) of longest teak bridge in the world. I was relegated to using my iPhone to capture my momentous crossing.

As I hinted earlier, the Mandalay region seems a little more tourism-savvy than the rest of Myanmar, which is a little sad because (and feel free to call me a hypocrite here) I think an influx of tourists irreversibly changes a local culture, mostly for the worse. In Thailand for instance it sometimes feels like locals play up to a cartoony stereotype to match up to the expectations of Western tourists, who can then go home and gush about the "authentic" experience they had visiting what they will call a "Third World" country. Because a bunch of people piling onto a tour bus, piling off at designated spots of interest, thrusting cameras into the faces of local people (often without the decency to even ask permission - they're human beings too!), and consuming meals way beyond the pockets of the Average Thai Joe is an authentic way to experience a culture.

I guess I'm cynical because I see how the tourism industry in Fiji works when I visit my relatives. I don't look Fijian (at all, my parents did well mixing me into a racial enigma that could be questioned by bold confused people her whole life) so if I'm not with my cousins I can be 'babied' in the tourist way by people who think I'm a foreigner. There they paint this picture that everything is quaintly coconuts and beaches. A friend of mine who will be travelling with me to Fiji next week on his first ever trip overseas actually asked if people wear coconut shell bras and grass skirts. The tourism industry there is so developed a visitor can enter the country, get on a shuttle bus, get on a boat, reach the resort and spend 5 days and 4 nights without even having to make contact with a (ugh) real Fijian person who isn't playing the role of the happy-go-lucky character cleaning your room or mixing your drinks.

So tourists go home with this warped perception of a country: "the beaches were splendid although I do think the kite-surfing scene is surprisingly underdeveloped still" or "the hotel was pleasant enough, although I do think the yoghurt, fruit and muesli at breakfast was a little more yoghurt, muesli and fruit, wouldn't you agree Tarquin?"  Never mind that Salote who slaved over your meals goes home with a couple of bucks pay a day to a two room flat with a large family, no refrigerator, a shitty electrical connection and wearing second-hand clothing. Tourists aren't interested in the actual lifestyle and culture of the locals, just whether or not they've skimmed the guides enough to drop interesting facts into conversation when they brag over the watercooler about the big trip, and if their photos are Facebook worthy.

This is where you may call "hypocrite" on me now, or argue that we're all injecting money into their economies anyway, so who really cares? I agree on the hypocrite bit. This trip, aside from in Yangon, I haven't met a single local who wasn't providing a service for me. I've done the Backpacker Tour Lite. If I'd done most of this trip solo I probably would've tried couch surfing a bit but that's a 'shoulda, coulda, woulda' at this point. 

Yes, we do inject much needed cash into these economies, and it's fantastic that a place as troubled as Myanmar is finally opening up to the world, but at what cost culturally? In ten years' time, are they going to be hardened and businesslike, like their Thai neighbours? Will the country see the arrival of backpacker ghettos and bars? Are people going to shout out "hello" in the street anymore? Will the wait staff in restaurants still have that charming air of being new to something and trying their hardest to do their best for you? Will a Burmese person approaching a tourist in a temple be an entirely innocent offer of friendship or a hard sell?

I liked Mandalay. However, it was a sad reminder that part of Myanmar's charm is that it's relatively new to the tourist thing, and we will eventually shape the culture to our expectations and wants.


Cycling in Bagan

You know when you decide to go to a holiday destination, and you spend ages excitedly looking at pictures, only to arrive at the place and be disappointed because the pictures in the guides are of the only good sight in the place photographed from five different angles? Bagan is not like that. It's surreal. It's other-worldly. It is amazing.

Firstly, contrary to what some sources may tell you, it is relatively easy to get around Myanmar. The long haul buses are extremely comfortable and modern, and the wide highways are in impeccable condition. I got an overnight bus from Yangon up to Bagan, unexpectedly arriving early at 3:30AM. After initially facing the challenging prospect of finding accommodation at such an hour, the issue was quickly solved with the aid of some locals and I grabbed a couple of hours' kip before waking up to face Tuesday morning.

What better location to spend a Temple Tuesday than on the plains of Bagan, home to the ruins of over 2000 temples? Some date from almost a thousand years back. Regulation of how you explore these temples is lax, to say the least. You are supposed to purchase a $10 pass from the local authorities who 'might' bump into you at a ruin and ask to check it, but I never encountered any officials, which was fortunate as I wasn't particularly sure of where to buy the pass either.

An affable Argentinian lad I'd met on the bus and I hired some bicycles from our hotel, took a quick look at a map of the plain and headed out toward roughly where we supposed we'd begin seeing some ruins.

It wasn't long before we were in the midst of what seemed like dozens of temples, and slipping into full 'Tomb Raider' mode. As I mentioned above, regulation of how you see these sites is lax, so you can wander inside a deserted ruin, find a relatively stable looking staircase, and climb all over the roof to your little heart's content. 

Everywhere you look seems like another photo opportunity, and I ran my camera battery flat by the end of the day trying to capture everything. During the course of the day we lunched at a little village and were shown about by one of the locals, which is something I would highly, highly recommend, if not to see how an authentic Burmese village works then just to meet some of the beautiful hospitable people who inhabit this arid area.


Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)

I apologise that I haven't been able to update my blog while I was in Myanmar - the internet connection speeds there can make dial up look like a thing of the distant future -  so I will be playing catch up over the next few days updating you all on my journeys over there.

I left Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport two Fridays ago with some feeling of trepidation as we flew towards Myanmar. The Lonely Planet guidebook I have been referring to had warned about the still somewhat primitive nature of the country compared to the rest of South East Asia. "Bring all your cash you will need as there are no ATMs in the country," it said. No ATMs? At the thought of that I already felt like a big task was at hand for me.

What I found there was an interesting juxtaposition between the stalwart old regime and the progessive influence of the outside world that is rapidly entering. The Burmese people seem to be embracing these changes eagerly too. One of my new friends here excitedly told me that Visa had arrived last month. The young taxi driver that picked me up at the airport said the country had changed so quickly in the last two years and "I hope it will stay like this for good". 

Also, I was very blessed to meet some wonderful young monks here who showed me many sights around town and given me a glimpse into their lifestyle, which is so very different from my own. Their days start at 4AM and are filled with study, meditation but also lots of socialisation. They enjoy listening to Amy Winehouse, Westlife (!), Bon Jovi (!!) and even Justin Bieber. They love to practice their English with foreigners as they hope to travel the world, just like everybody else.

Below are pictures from the beautiful Shwedagon Paya, the enormous reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple and inside a hollow stupa at one of the other temples, as well as other photos from about town and with new friends.