First Impressions, Mawlamyine (Moulmein) and Hpa-an

First Impressions………..

First impressions of Burma/Myanmar are that it is a tad confused – not to mention confusing !  It has been controlled by a series of brutally corrupt military dictators for many decades.   Finally they got democracy (and the ghastly Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor/think Prime Minister), whose father created the modern “democratic Myanmar and was promptly assassinated for his troubles !). She, for some obscure and misguided reason, won the Nobel Peace prize, before appealing to the Western world to impose sanctions against Myanmar and virtually ban (or certainly discourage) any form of Tourism,   Of course she is now better known for orchestrating and condoning the Genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in the north of this country.   

While neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam were deluged with foreign aid which enabled them to bounce back and “rebuild”, she persuaded the rest of the world to ignore and impose sanctions against Myanmar, in a vain attempt to put the military dictators “out of business”. It didn’t succeed and the entire country was crippled economically and will take many generations to recover. A saint?  I think not !!!!

So the basic tourism infrastructure, not to mention work ethic, is virtually non-existent the main upside of which is that the country is not yet overrun by hoards of Chinese and other tourists and (my bete noir) their dreaded selfie sticks !!!.

Burma/Myanmar is Buddhism on Steroids and the main driving force of the huge majority of the population, who are neither corrupt nor brutal. Isolated Civil Wars continue to be fought between the numerous ethnic tribes, and factions and the military government. Needless to say, tourists are kept well away from such areas! The vast proportion of the economy and population is dedicated to, and involved in, building and maintaining an extraordinary number of Buddhist Statues, Shrines, Stupas and Pagodas. Some of which are staggering (and Gold !) in size, scale and number. Much more of them later………………….. The people seem happy though as they have never known any different !!

Moulmein (aka Mawlamyine)

A day of HUGE Buddhas

First stop was a huge Sitting Buddha (claiming to be the largest in Myanmar though I suspect it has a few rivals.   Still under construction which is why it looks as though it has a beard which is in fact scaffolding !

A parade of statues/monks heading along the side of the road and off into the mountains. Then onto the largest reclining Buddha in the world.     MASSIVE – several 100 metres long and still under construction.      And as if that wasn’t OTT enough they are building a duplicate right next door which still has a way to go !!  Not sure why they need two , but as we proceed you will rapidly see that there is no such thing as too many Buddhas !!!! Oh and a dead monk who raised the funds for it all.

Onto the infamous Death Railway and a rather sad museum and a stretch of the original track with locomotive and “Disney” like simulation.     Many thousand allied troops perished as the construction of the railway was brutally enforced.     Mainly British and Australians fleeing north after the fall of Singapore etc.    The infamous Bridge on the River Kwai was part of this undertaking just across the Thai Border.    Needless to say not much remains as the Brits bombed and obliterated it as soon as it was finished as part of sending the Japs packing !!

Back into Moulmein for lunch and a tour of several rather sad “colonial” churches all in poor states of disrepair.   Catholic, Anglican, Jesuit etc.    All founded by European missionaries back in the “good old” colonial days of the 19th century when the Brits ruled the world – or at least thought that they did !!

A couple of monasteries and pagodas with “Stupas” everywhere, followed by an lengthy wait for a dramatic sunset that never really happened !    

Before we leave Moulmein a couple of Shots taken waiting for the sunset.   Health & Safety definitely not a concept here !!   Oh and a few very young monks.

Then back to the hotel for power cuts (frequent here !) and loud music outside.   Not helpful for a decent nights sleep and overcoming jet-lag but I soldiered on !!

Hpa-an – On the way and there

First stop a huge Monastery. Paid for and built by a wealthy self-made “tycoon” and much revered monk.

Another lengthy drive across the border into Kerem state and its rivers and massive limestone “outcrops” each one, needless to say, capped with glittering Stupas and Monasteries and of course vast numbers of Buddha statues and images.

A couple of vast limestone caves with every inch covered in Buddha carvings, effigies and statues some dating way back to the 7th Century (whose 7th Century I am not sure !).   And I mean covered !!!  Each one of those “ripples” on the ceiling is an array of carved miniature Buddhas. Also one of many very large bees nests hanging from the roof of the cave….      A long stumble though the cave to an opening overlooking a beautiful small lake.    However, the non-negotiable bare foot policy and scorching walkways rendered it quite painful and necessitated a quick hop back into the comparative cool of the cave.    My guide (bless her and her asbestos feet) constantly trying to steer me away from damp patches on the floor when all I wanted to do was stand in the nearest puddle !!    Another similar but larger cave on the horizon for tomorrow so more sizzling feet I am sure !!

Next a pagoda (and stupa) atop a limestone pinnacle in the middle of a small lake. Stunning,  but how they built it is anyone’s guess !!    

Then onto a park with over 1500 sizeable identical statues of Buddha in a park at the foot of the sacred mountain.

Then into Hpa-An for a visit to the Monastery, Pagoda and Stupas to watch the sunset across the Thanlwin River.      Tomorrow we get to view the sunset from a small boat on the river as literally millions of bats flock out of the cave for dinner (mosquitos !! ).

Finally had to resort to buying a Longyi (skirt) as visible knees and shorts are a strict no no and jeans way too hot  !!    So going native already.

The park with the 1500 Buddhas share the same sacred mountain which my new (very nice bungalow style) hotel looks out onto, despite a few termites chomping their way through the woodwork).   Oh yes and lousy service but as mentioned earlier they are very new to this tourism lark and whilst staff are plentiful they seem to think that service involves huddling together in the corner and ignoring any/all clients and customers

Hpa-an Day 2

This morning started with a visit to the local market which is exactly what it was !!  

Then onto Saddar Cave which is VAST and extremely impressive.   Once again the interior of the main cave is crammed with Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes and the inevitable Stupas !.     A fifteen-minute walk through various chambers and walkways until you emerge on the far side of the mountain and a small but magical lake.    A 20-minute voyage through the rice paddies in a teak and bamboo “canoe” takes you back underneath and around the mountain where the driver awaits.   

90 minutes later (we only had to go 5km !!) I released that he was hopelessly lost and had to revert to MapsMe on my phone to navigate him back to the Main (and I use the term loosely) Road, rendering him so nervous that I could have walked faster than he drove.     Patience prevailed and we eventually got back into town for quick lunch.     3 hours to kill before we go and meet the bats so will try to post this which will amazingly bring us up to date.  

Just a rickety boat ride to see the bats to go today…………..If still visible after the sun goes down will include in the next post !

Tomorrow a 6hr drive back to Yangon for an overnight stay before embarking on the RV Kanee Pandaw (Only 14 cabins, home for the next two weeks) and meeting and getting to know my travelling companions as we cruise at a leisurely pace up the Irrawaddy (Ayerawaddy as its now known).   Always a bit of a lottery but Pandaw customers are renowned for their sense of adventure (especially in Myanmar) so we shall see…………..   

Getting to Myanmar

Delivered the “Kids” to Posh Pets (wonderful new kennels) at 11.00 and then headed back home for last minute packing, shutting up the house, and the drive to Malaga, for the flight to London.    Discovered just in time that the original BA flight time had been moved forward by 2 ½ hours and they had “forgotten” to tell me.     A bit of a rush but made it on board in plenty of time.    Landed at T5 Heathrow and checked into Sofitel which means not having to leave the terminal and experience the wonders of English weather etc (F^%ing Freezing !!).       Burger, Bed and Breakfast then off to catch the train to T2.   After 20 minutes of standing on a freezing platform staring at a very nice empty train, we were informed that “they” couldn’t find the driver, so duly shuffled across to another platform where “they” had found a driver, and did.     Comfortable 12 hr Thai Airlines flight to Bangkok and speedy transfer to the connection to Yangon (Rangoon in old money).    Only marred by a stroppy female security person (give them a uniform and they turn into monsters !), who decided that some of my “potions and lotions” could not travel on the plane and so were consigned to the trash despite my protestations and prescriptions!!     When she mentioned getting the Police involved, prudence took over and I backed down – fuming!! – and boarded the plane for Yangon.

Arrived in Yangon, as surprisingly did my luggage, and was met by my charming Tour Guide and Driver who were to be my companions for the next 4 days.    I seem to be the only participant of this first stage of the adventure as tourism is a very recent concept around here.   So will be solo until hooking up with the Pandaw ship in a few days’ time.

In at the Deep End

After a 3 hr drive south, we visited a Commonwealth War Cemetery where 27,000 Allied soldiers “lay at rest” – victims of the Japanese invasion of Burma in WW2.    Immaculately laid out and maintained and an early reminder of how much shit went down here before the Brits, Indians and Aussies got the upper hand and sent the Yellow Peril back to Japan to face the consequences (Hiroshima etc).

The bridge that the Brits blew up in WW2 to stop the advancing Japs.    Unfortunately, the British general who ordered its destruction failed to consider the 2 infantry regiments who were stranded on the wrong side and were duly slaughtered or captured and put to work on the “death railway”.    Hence the scale of the cemeteries etc !!

I have missed a major Festival Day by 24 hours, But still managed to stumble across the aftermath……

Another hour drive and then Lunch with some very colourful Mon (Ethnic bunch) people then transfer to a bone rattling truck full of tourists and pilgrims heading up into the mountains to see the Golden Rock Pagoda which is one of the holiest sites in Myanmar.     A hairy drive, though “fortunately” the length of my legs got me to sit up front with the driver, which made it even scarier due to a multitude of hairpin bends and his insistence on driving flat out all of the way!!!    How we survived, (especially) the journey back down, was a miracle.  As was the survival of numerous dogs and cats who (protected by Buddhism) insist on sleeping in the middle of the road!!

A 20 minute hike up the hill until I arrived at the Golden Rock – HUGE and precariously balanced on the edge of a major precipice.     Access to approach, or touch, the rock is a strictly male affair.   Pilgrims have been visiting for centuries and covering it with multi layered gold leaf to the point where some of the lower sections are now solid gold.    The Stupa (get used to that word !) on top, apparently contains a couple of strands on the Buddha’s hair.     Mind you as do many of the other Stupas around the country.   No wonder he is always depicted as bald!!

A stunning site however and well worth the detour !! Then more bone rattling and into Moulmein (aka Mawlamyaing) and apparently the only decent hotel in town.     Not great but served its purpose apart from its Wi-Fi which was virtually non-existent ! Buddha overkill tomorrow so will post this now while internet access continues !

Segovia – Awesome !!!

Arrived in Segovia around lunchtime yesterday and checked into the Parador.  This one very different to most – very modern, a few Km outside the city on a neighbouring hillside with stunning views back across to the city.

Drove into the city for a late lunch in Plaza Mayor before visiting the Alcazar fortress which juts out at the end of the city.     Pretty amazing and only marred by (for the first time on this trip) crowds of Chinese with their f-ing selfie sticks and appalling manners !!

A bit of a fairytale castle reconstructed in the 19th century after a fire consumed the original which dated (and much the same design) from the 12th century and has seen more than its fair share of Royal Spanish weddings and coronations etc.    Very ornate inside with much Moorish influence etc.

Back to the hotel for dinner and then back into the city this morning after breakfast.     The very impressive ancient aqueduct built by the Romans in the 1st century with no mortar used in its construction !!    Still in use until the end of the 19th century when I guess it was superseded my a “modern” water supply.

A coffee in the square before a visit to the Cathedral and a 180 step spiral staircase up to the bell & viewing level for amazing views down over the city and surrounding countryside.   Not for the vertiginous or claustrophobic but well worth the climb.

A wander around the old Jewish Quarter and City walls before back to Plaza Mayor for lunch.    More churches and palaces in the city (mostly closed because its Monday and they were !!).

Then a lengthy drive around the neighboring river valley with a multitude of monasteries, convents, churches and retreats all stunning and old with views back across to the city.

I think its safe to say that I have had enough of religious monuments etc for a while but I have to say Segovia has eclipsed most other Spanish cities and was well worth the detour.

Back to the Parador and preparing for early start tomorrow for a marathon 8+ hour drive home.    Apparently it has rained down south, for the first time since April, and the weather seems to be closing in up here as well, so it could be a soggy drive.

Pick up “the kids” on Wednesday and get settled back home.    Next trip in November with a month in Myanmar (Burma) including a 2 week cruise up the Irriwaddy.

This Blog is dedicated to my gorgeous Amber who will be sorely missed when I get everybody home !!

Homeward Bound – Ciudad Rodrigo

Disembarked bright and early.    Taxi to pick up the car from the middle of Porto followed by a relatively painless  3-4 hour drive across Portugal, back into Spain and an afternoon and night in Ciudad Rodrigo.   A very old and historical town (aren’t they all ?) with a very nice Parador in the old castle.

A well restored pathway on top of the old city walls enables one to walk right around the town and dip into some of the architectural splendours within.    Churches, cathedral, museum and palaces with great views over the surrounding countryside…

The Cathedral is somewhat pock-marked.   Something to do with Wellington and a long siege many years ago when the English kicked out the French occupants and much shelling took place.

Next I head off to Segovia for two nights before a long drive south and home.    Rumour has it that we have had the first rain since April, in Andalucia,  which should have rinsed the summer dust off everything.   We shall see…………

 

Cruising back to Porto via Lamego

We now head back down river to Porto where we embarked.    Heading downstream with locks in reverse order.  The omnipresent Mr Sandeman towering over the river as a constant reminder that we are in Port country !!

A morning visit to Lamego with amazing chapel at the top of a very impressive flight of 700 steps all adorned with Blue Tiles and fountains etc.   We were bussed to the top and walked down !!    Then had a couple of hours to explore the town,  its cathedral and museum before heading back to the Douro Prince for the final cruise back to Porto.

Arrived back in Porto as the sun set behind what are now a familiar set of bridges.     A final dinner and then ready for disembarkation tomorrow and the start of the drive home..

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Douro cruising and a day in Salamanca

The Douro is the main “artery” of the Portuguese wine and Port industry.    Porto is where we set off from and spent 3 days cruising up river until we hit the Spanish border and above which the river is no longer navigable.    Six major or locks have to be negotiated – the largest of which involves a 35m change in levels.

Various excursions on the way mainly to Port production facilities and which I largely avoided but a number of interesting and scenic & cultural stops on the way.      The majority of my fellow passengers (30 ish in total and a motley bunch of elderly mostly female) seem to be here for the wine & port tastings !!

A visit to the ancient town of Castello Rodrigo famous for its almonds and its quaintness.

Then a day trip across the border into Spain and Salamanca.    A wonderful city (the oldest university in Spain) with serious cathedrals and other monumental architecture.

Then two hours back on the bus to Portugal to the Douro Prince and the cruise back down river to Porto……….

Amber RIP

Whilst cruising down the idyllic Douro River this afternoon I received a call from the kennels to say that Amber (my first and oldest Mastin) has passed away following a sudden re-occurrence of the dreaded bloat.     Obviously gutted !!   She will be sadly missed by myself and the rest of the Gang !!     At  least she has gone to the great “kennel in the sky” to join Mambo, Cleo, Lyla and all the others, so will be in good company !!

Amber

Travel safely gorgeous !!     I am blessed to have been able to “rescue” you from Adana and share my love and home with you for nearly 7 years !!

R xx

The Road to Porto

Delivered the “Gang” to Posh Pets in Alhaurin – Their new Holiday Camp – Then a five hour drive to Merida.   Relatively painless apart from a slow patch around Seville.   Nothing new there then !!

Merida

Arrived in Merida and checked into the Merida Palace Hotel on the main square where I had stayed before some years ago whilst on a cultural adventure.    An old historical Spanish town (aren’t they all ?) with some amazing Roman remains (arenas, stadia, temples etc). No time for much sightseeing as this was just an overnighter, but did manage to visit the old Roman bridge and Moorish Fortress.

Next morning onto Viseu (Portugal) for another night.

Viseu

Portugal a very different and greener vibe than parched Andalucía.    Some of the rivers even had water in them !!     Quite a lot of scorched forest however due to the latest wild fires.      Good roads, though a ruthless toll system that seemed to go “beep” (and cost money) every few Km.    Got to Viseu and very nice hotel next to the Cathedral.   Time for a bit of sightseeing before Sushi (very Portuguese !!) and early night before the final drive of this phase into Porto.

Arrival in Porto

A two hour drive up to Porto and eventually found Grand Hotel du Porto thanks to Sat Nav. and a very patient concierge who talked me into the heart of the pedestrian area and a car park where I left the Toyota for the next week or so.      A spot of sightseeing around Porto (Train Station, Churches and Cathedral etc).     An amazing city on the banks of the Duoro on many levels so lots of hills and steps.     Lots of walking and aching calf muscles !!    Plenty of Catholic guilt and gilt – Loads of Baroque architecture and interiors but very impressive with great views (if somewhat hazy) of the Douro river.

Next segment is the 7 day cruise up and down the Douro River.    Serious wine and port country, so I sense a spot of will power will be required as am firmly back on the wagon again.    A good time to go on a Wine Tour but more of that later ……….

Will publish this while the Wi-Fi holds up.    Expect a few days of radio silence as history has proved that rivers and Wi-Fi are an unreliable combination !!