Saturday, 29 March 2008

Day 311 - Yangon

I stayed at the Smile Motel in Pyay, it's an appropriately named place as it was a nice place to stay and the staff were very friendly. As I was about to leave they told me that I should reach Yangon in 6-8 hours, a distance of 180 miles, that's faster than the buses and about twice the speed of the train. I must be looking younger and fitter than I realised. They also said that the road was really good, but I took that with a large pinch of salt given their previous statement. When I set off I was soon out of the town and the road was smoother than in my wildest dreams. I could once again cycle with a nice steady rhythm and was able too look at my surroundings a bit more than just looking at the road just ahead of me, it made a real difference to my progress. The scenery was back to rice paddies and I passed through lots of villages and small towns. I covered 150k before it got dark so I had made it half way to Yangon without any problems, other than that as expected there were no signs of a hotel. I was told of one small town were there was a guest house and a motorcyclist guided me there, but as expected they were not licensed for foreigners. I stopped at the next town for dinner as it was getting dark. For the past few hours I hadn't seen any police stations but as I sat in a grimey restaurant I was spotted by one, stopping in his tracks as he was about to walk past me. I had no intention of asking police for permission to stay anywhere today as I presumed that as soon as they would look at my visa and realised it expired the following day they would force me on a bus to Yangon. Thankfully this one was more interested in his beer so when he was distracted I left. It was still only 19:45 but I didn't fancy going all the way to Yangon so I planned to stop in a roadside hut somewhere. During daylight I saw lots of potential but strangely enough they were really difficult to spot in the dark. I found a few too close to the road but they always open on two sides which meant passing traffic would be able to see me. Anyway, it was still too early and people were still about. I decided to just plod slowly on until I found the ideal spot or it was late enough to be quiet. Every so often motor cyclist would pull up alongside for a chat, I always feared them being police, but I at last had a stroke of luck. One pulled up alongside and said "May I help you", the dreaded phrase from the police stations so I assume police and just said no. He started to chat and I noticed he had a young girl on the back so I guessed he would not be police so I asked if he knew of a guest house. I knew he wouldn't but it had the desired result as he invited me to stay the night at his house, so a few minutes later I finished cycling for the day with 186k covered. The house (photo) was reasonably big by Myanmar standards with one large room and a separate kitchen, all built from solid teak and about 50 years old. I was made very welcome from the 3 generations that lived there together. I was given a longyi to wear, the wrap around skirt type thing that most men wear here and taken to the 'bath', a big concrete tub outside and full of water that you scoop out and pour over yourself. I have seen lots of people bathing whilst I have been here and they do so wearing their longyi, or in the case of women fully dressed, and often wondered what it would be like to bath with clothes on, I was about to find out. Actually it was ok, but I still fail to see how you can wash yourself all over properly with clothing on. In my case it was even worse as they all came out to watch their strange guest take a bath, the neighbours were watching too, but to make things even worse the longyi kept coming undone, clearly I was no expert. Well if washing is difficult, what I hadn't considered in the past was drying. How the hell do you dry yourself whilst wearing wet clothing and half the street watching you? Thankfully most realised my predicament and left, so when it was down to the last man I used the the conventional method, then quickly put on a dry longyi provided for me. Back inside I was given coffee and bananas, friends and neighbours had come round to enjoy the spectacle so the next hour or so was spent talking to Than Toe who was the only one that could speak English, then he would translate for everybody else. This must be a respectable household as nobody spat on the wall or the floors, they bent down and spat through the gaps in the floorboards, the house being on stilts. Eventually it was time for bed, but first there were prayers in front of the little shrine in the lounge. I tried to sit as they did but couldn't without supporting myself with one arm, so Than Toe suggested I squat as they do, but I did so on bent toes. He tried to get me to do it on the flats of my feet but I just couldn't do it and kept falling over backwards laughing. I think I am either not very supple or a very strange shape, or both! Prayers then started, each one ending by placing both palms on the floor and bowing the head to touch the hands. Being a house of one room it doubled up as everybody's bedroom. There were no beds as such, just thin rush mats laid out next to each other and a pillow at the top with separate mosquito nets. I lay down on the hard wooden floor feeling very tired but remarkably comfortable and very content even though I was sleeping next to a family I had only just met.

The following morning I think I was the last up at 6am. I had been dying to go to the loo in the middle of the night but didn't want to wake everybody up as I went to the raised little wooden loo at the bottom of the garden. Daw Khin was already up and ironing a shirt on the floor for Than Toe to wear to work. He works in Yangon, a two hour bus journey. I said he must be mad to do that until I realised I had been doing the same length journey for the last 10 years. I noticed a telephone sign on the outside of their house so I suspect their phone also doubles up as a public phone. After exchanging addresses and meeting more of the family I set off at 7am. It was lovely and cool to start with and as I passed small villages and roadside houses I felt I had a much better understanding of what village life in this country must be like. It's all too easy to see the romantic side of it after just one night, but to spend a lifetime under those conditions, and in the wet season too, no thanks. The only padded seat they have is on their motorcycles. I stopped for breakfast and was amazed to see that I had already covered 25k, however once the sun got up the going became really tough, my toes once again hurting like hell in the heat. I passed a couple of long processions during the morning, at the front were woman carrying plants, then women with rolled up mats on their heads followed by excited men around horses that carried young girls, all of whom look terrified. I am not quite sure what they were all about. I had booked myself in at the Motherland Inn whilst I was at Pyay as I expected to be very late, but having covered most of the distance the previous day I arrived at 13:30. My last problem was to get booked in. Some of the hotels are very fussy about the visa and had been warning me it was running out and given how close they are monitored by the government I suspected I could be refused on an expired visa. When I arrived, there was Dan from NZ who I had met in Mandalay, so I sat and chatted a while. The young girl at reception said she didn't need my passport as I had stayed there before and they had my details, but wanted to know when I last stayed there. "29th February" I said, to which Dan replied "Blimey, how long is you visa valid for?". I told him to shut up and thankfully it didn't register with the receptionist. I felt really pleased to be back in Yangon, the same sort of feeling I had when I arrived back in Paris after Paris-Brest-Paris, though this hadn't been so physically demanding, but I often doubted being able to cycle all the way back, but I had made it.

It seemed strange to be sat here at the Motherland Inn and watching life go by on the street outside without it feeling strange if you get my drift. When I was last here I had just arrived and all the sights, sounds, smells, customs and way of life were strange to me, now they are not, they are now the norm to me. But on Sunday I head of for Thailand and Chiang Mai and the whole process starts all over again. I feel very lucky to be around in our lifetime with the wealth, health and freedom to be able to travel as I am. Most people here do not have those privileges.

Today I just wanted to take it easy, but I still found it hard to lie in beyond 7am, does that mean I am getting old. I went to Shwedagon Paya (photo), the biggest and most famous golden pointy thing in the whole of Myanmar. Given that I wanted an easy day I went there in the afternoon, a big mistake. By then it was far too hot and as you have too walk around temple in bare feet it was almost impossible. Everybody was running between the shaded areas. Surely sightseeing isn't supposed to be that painful!

Judith and Andre, if you are still reading this I still think of you cycling around NZ. I normally think of you when I open one of my front panniers and see Andres old socks that he gave me to clean my bike with, so clearly I don't clean it often enough. Today whilst at Shwedagon Paya I padlocked the bike to a tree. When I returned they were watering the grass around it, but they had also cleaned my bike bless them. I had only thought in this morning that I ought to clean it but I couldn't be bothered as it would only get dirty again. They obviously thought it needed it more than I did.

Just for a bit in interest I have compiled a couple of lists.

10 things I will NOT miss about Myanmar

1. Betel nuts: These are wrapped up in leaves and chewed constantly and fill the mouth with horrible blood red liquid that gets spat out in long jet squirts everywhere. By default you get a smile full of rotting red teeth, disgusting!
2. Police
3. Restricted access to where you can travel. I think I covered most of the roads with the exception of the route to Inle Lake.
4. Non foreigner hotels, make life very hard for the cyclist.
5. Cash only society of the traveller. They have lovely ATM's in Thailand, I can't wait.
6. The Sun: It is way too hot here, though I have a sneaky feeling it is going to follow me where ever I go for the next few months.
7. Police: I almost forgot to mention them. What a bunch of mindless jerks! Why do so many people want to spend their lives watching other people live theirs? I guess it's a case of if you can't beat them, join them.
8. Power cuts: I have been suffering those since mid November when I entered India. I just hope Thailand has the stuff for 24hrs a day, luxury.
9. Miles: You get so many more kilometres for you money, who uses miles anymore anyway?
10. Military Dictatorships: Guess I shouldn't say too much about that other than it has put me right off going to North Korea!

10 things I WILL miss about Myanmar

1. Trishaws: They are ordinary bike with sidecars bolted on (photo), I want one!
2. Free tea: You get unlimited free tea in every cafe, you aren't even expected to buy anything else.
3. US$1200
4. Clean sheets: even in the most basic of guest houses (not that I am allowed to stay in those!)
5. Longyi: See text, also one being worn in photo. They must be lovely and cool in the heat.
6. Keepy Upy: Seems to be the national sport. Played by men of all ages with a wicker made ball. They are really good at it with lots of back flicks, good entertainment.
7. Bagan
8. Flat bells: Bell shaped but flat and very heavy, make a lovely sound when struck with just about anything.
9. Golden pointy things.
10. Blowing kisses: The sound made in cafes and restaurants to attract the attention for service. I tried it but it didn't work, I don't think I could do it loud enough, more practice needed.

So do I regret coming to Myanmar? No, not at all. They have been some of the most intense experiences of the whole trip so far, ok most of them bad, but I have always wanted to come here and if I hadn't, then that desire would still be there. Besides, the backpackers I talk to haven't had the same problems for obvious reasons, so most people come even and go away with just good experiences. Everybody that travels has different experiences in the same place, some good, some bad. That's travel, that's life.

There are also those that say you shouldn't come here as it is just funding the government. That may be the case for package tours, but certainly not in my case. I never stayed at government run hotels and never used government transport. The buses I used from Bago to Yangon were privately run. Of course the places I did stay at have to pay tax, about 10% I believe, but with all the police time I have wasted whilst I have been here I am sure that they have made a loss from me, I did a good job!

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Day 308 - Pyay

I feel ashamed at some of the things I am about to write, it shows up one of my many bad points, my subbornness, but I shall write it as it is, if I don't there is no point in writing it.

So 3 days out of Bagan and only another 2 to Yangon. The first 50k from Bagan to Kyaukpadaung were fine, but I knew they would be as I was retracing my steps. Then I had to turn onto a main road Highway, No.2. I expected it to be a big road with a bit of traffic on as it runs all the way to Yangon, 400 miles to the south, it was neither. It's a narrow road and very potholed with very little traffic. I suspect most traffic heading to Yangon cuts across 100k to Highway No.1. To think this is the nations second road is incredible, it's terrible and very slow going and not just for me. Any repectable government would be ashamed of such a road and I dread to think what all the other roads are like. Magway, the days target location was another 100k further south and I didn't arrive until 18:15, very hot and very tired, but thankfully I easily found a guest house. I lay on the bed relaxing and sweating when there is a knock on the door, they want my passport. 2 minutes later another knock, what nationality am I? "British" I said, "Aren't you Swiss", "No British", "Are you sure? I thought you were Swiss", "No defineately British". 2 minutes later he returned again, this time will my passport, "Are you from the Netherlands", "No I am British, there it says British Citizen." "What does citizen mean?", "It means I live in Britain, but forget about that bit". He wouldn't, just what you need when you are shattered.

Yesterday was due to be a shorter day, existence of a guest house permitting. There was no let up in the quality of the road but I reached the next big town after 85k by 12:45. A trishaw rider said he would show me to a guest house, but was immediately sent packing by 2 on a motorcycle who took me there, they were police. At the guest house they wouldn't let me stay unless I had authourity, so the police took me to the local government office, more of a cricket pavillion, and after about 15 minutes and a few phone calls I was then taken to the immigration office. Another 20 minutes of studying the passport and I was told I couldn't stay as there was no guest house. Despite the fact that I told them the police had taken me to one they denied it. The guy who took me there was very appolgetic and seemed very genuine, but the immigration office was straight faced the whole time and never looked at me. I was told I could find a place to stay at Myayde, 55 miles further south. Great! After a bite to eat, well plenty of bites actually, I set off just before 3pm with the intention of taking it easy, then just finding a shelter to sleep under for a few hours. After a while I stopped for some drinks and my whole body oozed sweat. I found a monastry, but they didn't want me either and suggested I go back the way I came. By nightfall I was still happy cycling and as it was now only 25 miles to Myayde I decided to carry on, afterall it just makes the following day shorter. Riding in the dark on the rough road wasn't as bad as I expect but I didn't like the sandy riverbed crossings. The 5 miles before Myayde the surface went completey, just sand and rough gravel, I thought I might have somehow got off the road so was somewhat relieved when a bus bounced past. There was another terrible bridge to cross, I crossed one in daylight (photo) but it was too dangerous to cycle over and there were splinters galore and even walking I had the risk of punctures. At last I arrived at Myayde at 21:00. I easily found a guest house but not for foreigners so they sent me to the hotel next door, not for foreigners either, they sent me back to the guest house. Somebody offered to take me to the police station to get permission to stay they, so off we went. They too studied my passport for 20 minutes during which time I was told constantly, "No problem, don't worry". Then came the verdict, "You can't stay, but we will take you to the bus station and we will put you on a bus to Pyay". "It's alright thanks" I said "I have a bicycle, I will cycle there", "No you wont, you have to go by bus". "Sorry, I don't do buses, I will cycle, it's ok thanks". "No, you will go by bus". For the next 15 minutes or so there was a stand off as I refused to go by bus. I asked if I could sleep on the bench I was sat on but they wouldn't have that either. Then he started to get impatient, "Stand" he said, strange as it is exactly the opposite as they wanted me to do when I was last in a police station, so true to form I ingnored him. "STAND" he demanded. "I will not stand until you tell me I can cycle to Pyay, what is wrong with cycling?" "It's too dangerous", "Why is it too dangerous?" "There are no lights". "It's alright, I have a light and I have just been cycling the last 2 1/2 hours in the dark without any problems." "Well you still have to go by bus". I have always thought it ironic that outside every police station there is always a sign that says "May I Help You". I saw the same sign in his office next to the desk, so I went over to it and read it out to him "May I help you, why will you not help me?". "We are helping you, we are putting you on a bus to Pyay", "That's not helping me, helping me is either letting me stay in a guest house or letting me cycle. I never asked for a bus thank you". After they had a short conversation I amazingly got the break through and he said I could cycle. I was amazed, thanked him very much and offered my hand to shake. He wouldn't, he was in a grump. When I at last went to leave, not exactly relishing another 45 miles as I had already covered 180k a policeman said "Follow me", "No thanks it's alright", "Follow me, I will take you to the township leader, he will give you permission to stay in a guest house". Off we went to another pavillion, more studying of the passport as I watched and listened to the geckoes and the amazing sounds of the nearby toads. I was nodding off and was brought a bottle of cold water. At last I was taken to the guest house and I made it to my room at 23:15, too late for dinner and as I was shattered I had a quick shower and straight to bed. It's so hot here that all I do these days is just lie on top. I think there are two problems with me staying in non tourist places. Firstly that after the September uprising they have tightened up and I think my passport is checked to see the route I have taken to Myanmar, rather than just come here for political reasons. Secondly, given point one it is much easier to send your problem on to the next town, then you have no paperwork. But I do question myself when I am argueing witht he police, I must be mad, I risk getting myself into serious problems, but I just can't stop myself, afterall I am not doing anything unreasonable or unlawful. If all this is computerised, which is unlikely, then I will have a big long file under my name, not good in a place like this.

Today, as expected I had the police escort out of town, but only to the first checkpoint. The police officer had a point about it being too dangerous as the road for the first 20k hardly resembled a road at all and progress was really slow and difficult even in daylight. But after yesterday, it left me with a short day to Pyay, just 70k of bouncing about, but it was much hotter than yesterday and I suffered. Why do I always find the short days so tough, all I can think about is getting there. To make things worse my feet hurt now. The soles of both are very sore and my right big toe has four odd marks on, three are close together and look like a snake bite. I am sure it is not, but I don't know how it happened, but it does hurts. Today I booked into a posh hotel and intend making the most of it, I need a little bit of luxury!

So two days and 300k to Yangon, but the bad news is there is nowhere to stay between the two. I have 3 choices, find a guest house and ask the police for permission, hmmm!, cycle 300k in one hit, no thanks, or sleep rough somewhere, oh dear, that looks the best option.

See you in Yangon!

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Day 305 Bagan (Revisited)

Happy Easter to all. I only found out less than a week ago that it was Easter this weekend. I understand the snow is likely, I envy you. Just a bit of rain would be really nice here.

Well I am still in Bagan! The day had another early start, 4:30, with another dash to the loo. At 6:15 when the alarm went off things weren't looking any better and after much soul searching I decided to go to Yangon by public transport. That left me with very mixed and confused emotions. I was really glad to not have to make it there in 4 days, one would have been 230k+ and in this heat would have been no fun at all, but it really hurts to have to use public transport when it wasn't essential, this is what I really hate about having deadlines and a flight to meet. But it is crazy to think like that. When I arrived here the intention was to cycle from Yangon to Mandalay via Bagan and I have done that, so why should I still feel so frustrated now at having to go back the easy way? It is stupid, but very frustrating and try and I may not to be annoyed about it, I am. Unfortunately that is just the way I am, too stubborn for my own good. Still, I tried to look on the bright side as it gives me a bit more time to have a proper look at Bagan, and that is worthwhile. Then later on I had a thought, I could try and get my flight changed to Sunday, why didn't I think of that before. I dashed off to a ticket office but they told me I had to go to the Air Mandalay office in New Bagan 8 miles away, which closed soon being Sunday. I asked them to give them a call just to see if it was possible and before I had a chance to give it a second thought the call had been made and I had been switched to Sunday's flight. I then made a slow dash to New Bagan and was glad I hadn't left today as my energy levels were low, but I got there in time and got my ticket updated. Joy! It is not ideal, but at least I am happy for the time being and have peace of mind. The only downside is that I will now overrun my visa, something I was trying to avoid doing, which means I may run into trouble when I leave, but I am probably worrying about nothing there.

So feeling content and relaxed again I went off in search of lunch. I had decided to concerntrate on a group of temples at Old Bagan so I went to a restaurant there recommended by Eva and Francisco, it was good, but somewhat smarter than my usual cheapie choice, but I just enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere with my new found peace of mind. After visiting just one temple I had sudden urge that I could have done without. I dashed back to the restaurant as I knew exactly where the loos were, they were great too and I was glad to have paid extra for the lunch just to have found out where they were otherwise I am not sure what I would have done. After visiting a few more temples I started to head back. I was already hungry again so bought some food from a shop, then downed a litre of water and strawberry juice in a cafe.

So having been here 3 days I still haven't seen as much of Bagan as I would have liked as I have had 'restricted access', but at least I have seen more than if I had left after one day. Hopefully I will leave tomorrow and I see no reason as why not to. I have 6 days to get there now, but still hope to get there in 5 due to the lack of accommodation on the way. I know of 2 places I can stay, that leaves just 2 that I will have to sort out when I get there.

Dad, you need to read the comments to see the relevance of Nellie the Elephant, but if I remember rightly for some reason you can not access them.

Another advantage of staying here another day is that I have just found out that Norwich won 5-1. We normally only score 1 goal a game, there must have been 4 own goals!

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Day 304 - Bagan

Bagan, WOW!

Heading from Mandalay to Meiktila was a bit of a drag as it was retracing my steps, but at least I had the advantage of knowing exactly how far I had to go, unfortunately it was 152k, about 52 of them unwanted. Once again early afternoon was red hot and as usually happens in extreme heat my toes were really hurting, so I had to resort to wearing socks with sandals. They have a double advantage though becuase as well as covering my feet and reflecting some of the heat I can also soak them in water which keeps them nice and cool for about an hour. Thankfully every so often along the roads here there are earthenware pots with water for drinking in them, so I stop every now and then to top up my socks and pour some over my head, it's lovely and cool, bliss! By the time I reached Meiktila I was nicely cooked and I had turned an alarming shade of red, that's despite being browner than the locals here. The red on my legs seems to be a heat rash.

I made an early start for Bagan the following morning and I was somewhat surprised to see 5 touring bike in the large reception area of the hotel when I went down. They were 3 Czechs and 2 Germans and not very sociable, I had trouble getting the time of day out of them. I don't think they even talked to each other as they all left separately. I had hoped the route to Bagan would be a bit shorter than the previous day, it wasn't. To make it worse it was a very slow road, narrow, very rough and hilly, though it brought the first real change in scenery since I have been here. Gone was the farming to be replaced by scrub and deforestation, but it was nice to be amongst the hills. I was very frustrating to have to go downhill so slowly because of all the potholes, but I was getting there slowly. It was a bit cooler than the previous day too and only made 42. I seem to be able to cope pretty well up until 40 degrees, then I really begin to struggle. At lunchtime I had reached a town and decided to stop a while to sit out the worst of the heat, so found a nice comfy little cafe and had 4 different types if drink and plenty of food. Once I finished eating people would come in and order food that I hadn't seen and looked really good, so each time I asked for the same. Sat in the shade stuffing my face was so much more fun than cycling. When I eventually got going again it was another 40 odd k down a dead end road to Bagan. Amazingly the surface was pretty good, it was gently downhill a lot of the way and I raced along surrounded by palm trees and hills to my left and I felt great again. Given my long lunch stop I arrived earlier than expected feeling remarkably good, much better than when I finished the previous day. I had turned to the west then northwest, so I was slowly cooked at a different angle which came as a relief. I spotted Eva from Belgium and Francisco from Germany, who I had met in Mnadalay, in a restaurant so we spent the evening together.

Well Bagan has about 4400 temples spread over quite a few square kilometres and I had one day to do it justice, it just wasn't going to happen. I chose 14 of the best temples that were spread over quite an area so that I would get a bit of a taster of the whole. The problem with many of the temples in Myanmar is that they are all a bit sameish so you get templed out pretty quickly, but not so in Bagan. All the temples are quite different, in achitecture and even in what there is to see there, Budda images, frescoes, the architecture itself and some with great views from the top. The first one I climbed for a view had incredibly steep steps so there was a need to use both hands going up and down, but the views of the surrounding area and temples were well worth it, but sadly photos never do it justice. I chose a small town to stop in for lunch, but it was too small and all I could find were a couple of little pre packed cakes, one of which turned out to be a bit moldy. Still I picked it off and ate the rest, beggars can't be choosers. Later in the afternoon I began to think I had done the wrong thing as I started belching with the taste of rotten eggs. I had a rough idea of what would come next. Unfortunately some of the temples that had frescoes in were very dark and I could see little having left my torch behind. As I bumped across the sandy tracks I suddenly gained a very noisey rattle which turned out to be a broken rear mudguard, split in two, so the curse of Myanmar continues. Added to that I have also had a virus on my camera memory card and now can't transfer them, hence the lack of photos recently. Once back at the hotel I taped up the memory stick and managed to burn off the mudguard to a CD, something like that anyway. Well I have loved Bagan, but I would also have loved about 3 days here, though I did get a good taster on my one day even it was a bit of a rush.

During the night the cake came back to haunt me in the form of the trots requiring hourly visits. I was really thirsty but it was just passing straight through me. Given the fact that on a days cycling here I get through 5-6 litres of water I guessed that if I left I would spend most of the time behind a bush and get very dehydrated into the bargain. I think I made the right decision as my visits continued until midday when I took a couple of immodium, botty blockers, and that seems have done the trick. I didn't dare leave the hotel room this morning, but I have become a little braver this afternoon. All being well I should set off tomorrow morning, but what would have been a hard 5 day ride to Yangon has now turned into a very hard 4 day trip. If I end up being stuck here for another day I shall not even attempt it.

Thanks to Mr Larrington for putting me out of my misery concerning 'The Road to Mandalay', but no thanks at all to Aoiffe for putting me in even more misery as I now have 'Nellie the Bloody Elephant' stuck in my head.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Day 300 - Mandalay

Crikey, another post already. I know I said I would but it seems too soon.

Life is a bit boring and normality has been resumed. I still notice police around, but I don't think they are tracking me anymore. The ride to Mandalay was pretty straight forward, but another long one at 150k, so I left nice and early, 7am, had a good run and arrived at about 15:30. and for a change the temperature only reached 35 which made it far more comfortable. I had already booked a room in advance just in case I did attract the attention of the police again, but it was worth doing anyway as it is a very popular backpacker hangout and was already full. So it's all very sociable again and that has also helped. I met another couple who had had problems in the same area, but they had gone to the expensive hotels in the tourist zone, and travelling in a taxi they were just aware that they were tracked the whole time.

The first day in Mandalay was reasonably leisurely. I walked up Mandalay Hill for some fantastic view where you can see more pagodas and pointy things than you can shake a stick at. Just below it are the grounds on Mandalay Palace and they are huge, but the palace was destroyed and there is little to see there now. The walls around the grounds are completely intact as is the moat, what must surely be the biggest moat in the world, well I have never seen one as big as this anyway. I ended up walking all the way around it and it took over 2 hours, we are talking big. My only problem that all I wanted to do after a few long days cycling was eat. I had the free breakfast at the hotel, but as soon as I had finished I was thinking about where I could go for another one. The evening was spent with Kiwi Dan and Brian from Canada. It is Brian's first trip abroad and I just his youthful enthusiasm, he has really caught the travel bug and he even seems to like the idea of cycling, though I have advised him not to start here. I had my first beer since the last one, a long time ago!

Today I did a bit of sight seeing a bit further out in the city, a lovely wooden monastry and a reveared image of Budda that continues to get plastered in gold leaf. It is probably much bigger now than its original size. I then went out to Sagaing, one of the ancient capitals, there are a few around here, where there are alot, alot, ALOT of pointy things on a hill, not the place to do a parachute jump I can assure you. Lots more gold too, this really is 'The Golden Land'. On the way back I called in at Amarapura where there is an old teak footbridge that is over a kilometre long in a lovely tranquil setting.

Practically every day since I entered India way back there have been lots of cyclists and there are always a good number that don't like being overtaken by me, it's been the same in every country. I pass them at my normal plod speed, then they come flying past, to make a point I assume, but within a minute or two I am passing them again as I maintain a steady speed. Now at least once a day there is somebody that will want to stay in front and as I start to pass again they speed up again until they are a little way ahead, then they slow down again and the whole process repeats itself. But I have now devised a little game, it's great fun. I let the process continue for 4 or 5 times and wait for them to tire a little, then as they speed up again I get onto their back wheel and stay a foot or two behind. Just being in front is not good enough for them, they need some space in between, so they get faster and faster until there legs are spinning like mad on their single speed bike. In the meantime I am cheating a little be going through the gears and it is easy to just cruise along behind. Before long they can take it no more and they stop pedaling and I pass them, then slow down to my normal pace, but they never pass me again. Childish aren't I?

I need your help. I know of the song 'The Road to Mandalay', but all I can remember is the title. Who did it and when? If you could hum the tune to me, then so much the better. If I had to guess I would probably go for the Beatles.

I have booked a flight out of this place now. I fly from Yangon to Chiang Mai in Thailand on Thursday 27th March. That is the day before my visa runs out and as there are only 2 flights a week I chose this one so as not to over run the visa and give them any more chances to give me hassle when I leave. That leaves me with a pretty tough schedule to get back tol Yangon, but I would rather it that way. From here I head off tomorrow for Bagan, 2 long days of cycling. I am going to head back to Meiktila for the night as I have been told by locals that there are no hotels for foreigners on the only other route. There will be nights between Bagan and Yangon where there will be no foreigner hotels when I will have no option but to go that way, so I decided to head back to a hotel I know whilst I at least have an option.

I will post again from Bagan on Friday, but I don't expect to have anything exciting to report.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Day 296 - Meiktila

Of all the countries I have visited , this has to be the one that most reflects just what it must be like to live here, and it's not for me I can assure you.

I have made alot of friends in the past couple of days, some I am sure would like to read this and so as not to affend them too much it has been toned down a little, but I am sure you can read between the lines.

The place is still challenging and it is a hard place to travel in and definately not a place to cycle around, infact anybody who decides to cycle here must need their bloody head tested.

Tuesday was another trip to the embassy, still no arrival of funds. The Foreign Office in London were chased up, but due to time differences I had to wait 5 hours and just made the last bus back with 3 minutes to spare but some much needed cash in the pocket, so at last I was ready to leave the following morning. I will write a letter of complaint and asked for the 61 pounds fee back as it seems to have been an admin error there.

It was great to be back on the road again, a feeling of total freedom, but there are other problems here. My map has no distamces on, nor do the signposts, so judging how far I can get is very hit and miss. To make things worse most towns have a guest house which I can find by asking around, but they have to be licensed to take foreigners and most aren't. That means I have to keep going until I eventually find one that will let me stay. Added to that it is very hot between 12 and 3, around 43 degrees, but I can't stop as I don't know how far I will have to go, so I have been doing 150k plus every other day, much further than I would like.

But I did find a gem of a place in Toungoo, a guest house on the edge of town, down a little track, a wooden house and very peaceful. When I arrived I was not shown a room but force fed with fresh fruit from the garden and fresh lemon juice, the staff were so friendly. One woman, the friendliest, helped me with the bags to the room and whilst in there she said "Please will you kiss me". I was somewhat taken aback and didn't know what to do or say, again she said "Please will you kiss me". "Kiss you?" I said, but she said nothing. It's a very different culture here but I thought I suppose it wont do any harm, so I am just about to give here a little peck on the cheek when she said "Please will you kiss me your passport". Crikey, that was close, she would have one heck of a shock. Later the owner showed me around the garden, something she takes great pride in, but a bit of a jungle. I saw pineapples growing for the first time, but she also grows bananas, oranges, lemons, limes, mangos, papaya, chillies, star fruit and coffee to name just a few. What a wonderful relaxing and friendly place to stay, just what I needed.

Breakfast the following morning was in the price of the room, and wow, what a breakfast. Lots of fruit from the garden, bread and curry, banana panckes, toast, there was no way 2 people could have eaten it all, despite me giving it my best shot. I was away by 7:30, expecting another long day, it was! All was going well, I was really enjoying the cycling and I felt great again. Just after a lunch stop I was stopped at a road check and asked to show my passport. All sort of details were noted down and I was asked to go across to the teashop across the road for questioning. After a few minutes an officer's daughter turned up to do some translation whilst I was question and my passport was taken away for photocopying. After about 20 minutes I was free to go on my way again. A few kilometres further on I was aware that I was being followed by a motorcyle, then two. They stayed about 50 metres behind, but I could always hear the motors a little way back. As I continued I also became aware that there was quite a network of people involved as when I crossed bridges and passed junctions there were always people there on radios. At times they pulled up alongside for a chat, just the usual questions, what is your name, where are you from. They told me I had to go into Pylimana for the night and they would escort me. At the junction to Mandalay they wouldn't let me turn right but insisted I turned left and I was to follow them to a hotel, fine by me, I had gome further than I wanted to already. I was told it was only 1 or 2 miles but after about 3 I stopped for a drink as I was so thirsty. 2 came and sat opposite me and 3 stayed across the road. I asked why they were following me but the answer was always evasive, I asked about 15 times before one eventually said "I am on duty". He asked to see my passport but I said no. He asked again so I asked for his ID but he said he had left it at the office, but the other one produced his. I handed it back and said it looked like a student card and still refused to show my passport. They ordered drinks, so I immediately finished mine and left. Further down the road they said I was to turn right, but my gut instinct said turn left. I asked somebody the way to a hotel and he pointed left. My friends said I had to go right 11 miles to the tourist hotels that would cost at least $50. I said "You told me 2 miles back there and now you are telling me 11, you can fuck off!" and off I went to the left. Needless to say they didn't take my advice and followed me. I ignored them from then on and soon found a motel that said they were full. I questioned whether they took foreigners but they said no and confirmed where those hotel were and that they would cost between $50 and $100. They also told me I could stay at Tatkon 50k towards Mandalay. I didn't want to go further but it was better than following my friends so at 15:20 I set off in the hope of getting there before dark, but as soon as I left the hotel my frinds went in. I was followed the whole way, the whole route was swarming with people on radios, practically every bridge and juction the whole 50k had them. I needed to stop for more food and checked a few places out but they only did full meals and I didn't have much time so I just carried on. I noticed 2 on a bike stop at a food place and they then rode alongside me saying "food, food" but I didn't even look at them. As I neared Tatkon I passed a very arrogant looking guy on a radio. As we entered town he was on my right shoulder so I eased up and asked him where the hotel was and he just laughed. I repeated the question with the same results and he started to pull away. What I did next wasn't the brightest thing to do, I caught him up, forced him off the road and made him stop. I asked the question again bit got no answer, but at least his laugh had gone. A few hundred metres further on was a police station. I have used them before for hotel infomation so I went in. They obviously knew who I was and the welcoming commitee was out, my friends followed in. Crikey, they were police, gosh I hadn't realised. I went in and asked where the hotel was and was told to sit down. I sat down and repeated my question and was told "Don't talk". Somebody came and sat near me so I asked the same question. He put his finger to his lips and said "Shhhh, don't talk". Oops, I felt I could be in the shit here, so I got up and started to walk out and Boss Man said very firmly "Sit down and be quiet", I just walked passed him and out of the building. He followed me and asked "Where are you going?". "To find a hotel before it gets dark" I said. "Please sit down" he said, I left assuming that ecen in Burma it is not a crime to ask where a hotel is. There was no sign of a hotel and a number of people said there was one in the next township, a further 22 miles. I went into a restuarant and put my bike behind a bus. I asked for veg curry and rice, but they brought out no end of dishes. I was rediculous, nobody could eat all that and no doubt I would have to pay for it all so I got them to take 5 dishes back. I was now really glad of my Audax cycling experience as I set off at 19:00 in the dark, still feeking pretty good. To the best of my knowledge I wasn't being followed and added to that it was nice cycling with the temperature now under 30. I soon passed another check point where I had to show my passport and within minutes I was being followed again. It was now harder to tell how many were around in the dark, but there were a few. One pair came up and made contact and said "We are Police, you are safe now". Later they pulled up alongside and offered me something. I couldn't see what it was so stopped. I was a packet of cigarettes! I asked them how far to the hotel and they said "7 miles, on the next township". I eventually entered the township and saw what looked like a guest house so stopped. 5 motorcycles surrounded me and they said it was full and I was to follow them. Soon we arrived at another, this time there were another 4 police outside waving me on, but I stopped. They told me I couldn't stay there but I insisted I needed a bed for the night and I was going to check. A motorcyclist raced in ahead of me, said a few words and sure enough it was "full". With these tactics I had no chance. I asked if they were taking me to the police station but they insisted I had to follow to a guest house. I asked if I was being arrested and they laughed and said no. So I just had to follow as our bloody great convoy of about 10 motorcyles passed good looking guest houses and out the other side of town until the street lights stopped. I stopped and pointed out that there would be no guest houses that way, but they insisted there were. "How far?" I asked, "7 miles" said the one that had told me 7 miles ages ago. I was furious "You told me 7 miles in the next township about an hour ago and now we have passed through it. I don't trust you, there will not be one in 7 miles. You either arrest me or I am turning back". "OK" he said. "Does that mean you are arresting me?". "OK" he said again, but I soon realised they weren't going to arrest me, so turned back followed by the Keystone Kops. I stopped at a large outdoor cafe, the mood changed as soon as we entered. There was nowhere to sit but I table emptied immediately and I coild sense the discomfort in everybody. I sat down joined by 2 police, all the others sat around another table, all eyes in the cafe on me. It was 21:15 I had ridden over 200k through the heat of the day and I had had enough. I asked why they were following me, about another 15 times, but got no answer, they went to their mates. I made up my mind to spend the night sat in this chair. Police came over every now and then for a chat then went back. My bike was near them and I didn't trust them so brought it over next to me to laughter around the whole cafe, that made me feel good. 3 more police came back and asked me where I would spend the night, "Here" I said. "Where?", "Right here in this chair". They left and later returned and said that I could stay at a guest house, but it was very basic. Their mood had changed and they were all very friendly, shaking hands, pouring me more tea than I could drink. We left in convoy back though town and 3 police went into the guest house I checked earlier, then came out and took me into one opposite. All the police came in and gave me a hand with my bike and baggage, which I didn't like, they even showed me to the shower. After a shower even more police had arrived, immigration unit apparently. Only one seemed any good, another filled out a form that took about 20 minutes that I could have done in one, the others all had their little note books out, it was pathetic, like a bunch of school kids on an outing. It was all friendly though as they started to teach me Burmese including "I love you" that I kept telling them I wouldn't be needing. At midnight they finished having photocopied every page in my passport 5 times. Most left but I suspect at least one spent the night there.

At 7:30 this morning they were there to greet me. "You have something to eat and then we go" I was told. I replied "I decide when I eat and when I go, you will just have to follow". I paid but the price had risen from 2000 to 5000, no doubt for the police. I refused to pay any more than 2000, it wasn't worth it, it was a dump with walls made of hard board, so thin that when people in the next room made noises I thought there was somebody in my room. I went to the same cafe as last night for breakfast and dragged it out for an hour. There were police on the road and at the table next to me. I set off but was only ever aware of one motorcycle following me as I tried not to look back. At a check point I was allowed through and I am sure they were called off there. The rest of the ride to here was uneventful and I was so relieved to be alone again.

I am sure this is not the end of it. I am concerned that they will "find" something on me so to that end I will not let them near my bike again or touch anything they offer me. I really want to be out of this place, but at least I can go whenever I want, at the moment, the people living here don't have that luxury.

There is no need to worry about me. Tomorrow will be another long day to Mandalay and I will do my best to post on Monday so that you know I am ok. I had been warned by Sonya that I would be followed here, but I hadn't expected the level of harassment. When I told her I was going here she said "What on earth do you want to go there for?" I am asking myself the same question now.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Day 290 - Bago (More problems, so going nowhere)

I am getting the feeling that I should never have come to this place!

From the moment I entered the airport at Dhaka, there has been one problem after another. First a delayed flight, then a missed flight, I was locked out of my hotel room, my bike got left behind at Bangkok, I have had all my money stolen and now the replacement funds have not turned up. I was assured by the embassy in Yangon that a CHAPS transfer was `almost instant`, but by the time that I had turned up there on Friday, 36 hours after the transaction had been initiated, it had still not arrived. To make matters worse it is now the weekend so still no money, oh, and the embassy in closed all day Monday for a one off training day, so no money until Tuesday at the earliest, that's assuming an instant transaction doesn't take more than 6 days! To cap it all I am going to have to pay the embassy 61 pounds for the privilege, so it's good to know that in your hour of need that rip off Britain is still fully functioning. That means I can not leave this place until Wednesday at the earliest. If I had any hair I would be tearing it out. If you haven't already realised it, I am getting just a bit pissed off now.

I was up at 6am on Friday and made the 2 1/2 hour bus ride to Yangon with Myakto as he goes there every Friday. Leg room was minimal shall we say, but at least I had a seat, there were plenty standing for the whole journey. I was on the Oakthar Express, but the word Express is used in the loosest terms, being rather slow and stopping all the time, no matter how packed the bus is already. By the time we were going through Yangon and stopping at lights it was getting uncomfortably hot, but at least it stopped right outside the embassy. Once they realised the money hadn't arrived they did their best to help me, but the most they could do was offer me 100 pounds, a bit risky if I end up another 3 weeks here and still without a flight out. So I resigned myself to be making another trip here on Tuesday and went to get the bus back, another 2 hour wait, oh joy! As I sat drinking tea somebody sat next to me and tried to have a conversation, but I wasn't in the mood for it, especially with questions like`Are you happy?`. My answer was pretty short, `No`. He wasn't put off by this and followed up with `Why not?`. I then decided it was best to just keep my mouth shut. The bus journey back was even worse, even less leg room and as I was right behind the driver I had to have my feet over a metal box, so after about an hour I had a really numb bum and no chance to move. I have said it before, but it is so much easier on a bike. Once I was back I went straight to Police Station No.2 to try and get a statement from them so that at least I can claim a little bit back on insurance. I was not surprised to be told to come back at 8am in the morning.

At 8am Saturday morning I was surprised to find that they had produced a report, even if it was only a short letter, though I wasn't too happy at having to sign their copy when I couldn't understand a single word. I refused at first but eventually worked out that there was a date in there for 2nd March and the numbers 1200 and 70000, in their numerals, so eventually I signed it. Nothing else much has happened really, I am just desperately trying to kill time, what a waste. I have certain things to look forward to each take, but they illustrate what a sorry state of affairs it is just sat here. Firstly I look forward to a couple of hours in the internet cafe as the time seems to go so quickly in there as my little brain it active for a while, then I look forward to an evening meal by which time I am pretty hungry as I have nothing to eat at lunchtime. But the real excitement of the day is at around 7pm when the electricity comes back on and I can turn on the air-con and the television and settle down to watch crap American films that surely nobody has ever paid to see, or two week old English football matches that I know the score of. Yesterday I watched Arsenal v Aston Villa, and I knew Arsenal scored a dramatic late equaliser that was worth watching. I can remember seeing the 89th minute, but then I dropped off and missed it! I also saw a film call The Absence of Good. It was terrible, but what an inspired and honest title. Last night I ate at the cafe just across the road from the hotel, having eaten there the night before. I hadn't eaten there prior to that as I thought it would be more expensive as it was much smarter than the other places I have been eating at, clean floors and tables with clean cups, plastic chairs instead of stools, that sort of thing. I had my usual, just a plate of rice which thankfully always comes with a few little side dishes such as pickled mango, veg, chillies etc. Last night there were an extra couple plus tea that when I asked for it the previous night they said they couldn't do it. The service was very good and each time I emptied a side dish or drank tea, I immediately got a refill. When I came to pay they wouldn't accept my payment and try as I may they kept refusing, then they said "You lose dollars, you lose dollars". Isn't that wonderful? It rather restores my faith in the human race. They also insisted that I go back there and eat for free again.

Today has just been more of the same, watching the clock pass slowly. I often get asked by passing people "Where are you going?" With my feelings for this place as they are, I just ignore them as to answer them I feel would be an invasion of my privacy, but I read today in the book I am reading, Wild Swans, that a bad but literal translation of a Chinese greeting is "Where are you going?", it's more of a "How do you do?" type greeting. Maybe that applies to here too, so perhaps I should loosen up a little.

The first photo is the Emperor Motel, the source of my problems and where I am currently stuck.

Roll on Wednesday!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Day 288 - Bago (End in sight, hopefully)

Phew, it's hot here. Like a true Brit I am never happy. I have air-con in the room, but what use is that if there is no electricity? Also the key bit you put in the slot of the hotel room has broken and I have to shove a tube of toothpast into the slot to get anything to work. People walk around with umbrellas to shelter from the sun, I just sweat it out.

Having given up hope of seeing any funds being returned, it has become time to get some money sent to the embassy in Yangon. To that end I called on my great friend Caroline, who as always carries out tasks, efficiently, effectively and without the slightest fuss, that's why I called on her, bless her and thank you very much Caroline.

I rang the embassy this morning but no sign of the money, but having read my emails later I read that it wont be transfered until Thursday morning, so probably wont even be there by the time the embassy closes this afternoon. I think I will take the chance and travel to Yangon tomorrow, afterall it is not as if I have a lot else to do now. I spoke to Myakto again last night and he had already told me that he goes to Yangon on a Friday, so I will join him on the 7:15 bus. I really like Myakto and I told him last night that he is the only person through all of this that I can really trust, there are good people in this world, even if sometimes it is difficult to tell who they are.

I have made up my mind what probably happened when I was robbed. As I took out my passport from my bag as I checked in I suspect Usob, the motorcycle driver, saw that the holder was somewhat fat and guessed what was lurking in there. He showed me to the room, waited for me to leave, then went into the room with a key. When he showed me the room he helped himself to a handful of keys, so was obviously a common thing for him to do. Knowing where to look he didn't need to disturb anything else, then I suspect he threw the money down to an occomplice from either the balcony or more like the bathroom window, which was opened wider when I checked it, meaning he wouldn't be caught with the cash and wouldn't have to even leave the building. I would guess his accomplice on the ground was the Tall Man who, inccidentally, was the man Usob called to translate for me. The Tall Man didn't want to listen to what I had to say but tried to convince me that somebody had climbed in through the window, deflecting attention from somebody entering through the door. The Tall Man was later arrested, apparently for handling stolen cash in another crime, but I have seen him back on the streets. So my intention now is to do nothing and let the judicial system here take it's course and not interfere with it, afterall the police suspect the same person as me and probably have far more information than I am ever likely to get out of anybody, but I have asked the embassy to speak to them and give me the latest update. I feel sorry for Sawtun as I would guess that he is innocent in all this but was arrested as he had overall responsibility of the hotel at the time. The only real defence I can think of for Usob is that it would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do given that he would the main suspect. I still can't believe the bit about the 2 men in room 309. I also realise that I may be completely wrong in all of the above, but given the lack of information I am given and that all I am told is that 'nobody would ever have done such a thing', I have to base the decision of my actions on what I can only guess happened.

So I am trying to get life back to normal. I spent yesterday afternoon doing a bit of sight seeing. I try to do a bit late each afternoon as the people on the ticket offices have gone home and I can get in for free. The foreigners ticket for all the sights is $10 and I can ill afford it at the moment. As you leave the airport in Yangon you pass a sign that says 'Welcome to Myanmar, the Golden land', and as I visit the sights I can see what they mean. Even as I cycled along every few kilometres I passed golden pagodas, but here in Bago they are BIG golden pagodas, nice peaceful places to spend a little time and reflect on life.

I have stopped going to the Police Stations. I am hardly welcomed there and as Sawtun and Usob speak little English there is not much to say. That also means I have stopped taking them food as if I keep taking them food them somebody will have to start giving me food!

The nights are hot and long. I keep the air-con on to try and stay cool, but the then power goes off and I wake up soaked in sweat. I never know if its the power off or the trip has gone so I have to get up and move the toothpaste to find out. If its the power I have a choice of sweating away under a sheet or throwing it off and getting eaten by mosquitos, most nights its a mixture.

So tomorrow I head for Yangon and all being well I will be away from here heading for Mandalay on Saturday morning. If the money does not arrive the earliest I can be away will be Tuesday, how I hope that is not the case.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Day 287 - Bago (No repeal)

What would I give to be out of this place?

Things change by the day at the moment, hardly surprising. Myakto arrived last night, we have been meeting a couple of times a day, but it is risky for him as he is being watched by the authorities. He showed me a letter from the International Red Cross that I had asked to see that comfirmed his imprisonment for 6 years as a political prisoner. Myakto is the one person I feel I can trust in all of this as he provides evidence when I ask for it and when I have asked him to find out legal information it has always been the same answers as I have had from the embassy. He also had bad news for me, that if I repeal the 2 men will remain in prison under investigation as crimes against foreigners are taken seriously, probably because the Police have more leverage for bribery and corruption. He also told me that Kyeemaung had told him this on the way in. That pissed me off as I had asked Kyeemaung, the Night Manager here, to keep me informed, so I asked him to come in on the discussion, though he couldn't say much more about it. He is still trying to convince me that the theft was carried out by 2 men from room 309 who checked in at 13:30 and mysteriously departed at 17:30. I asked if he had evidence of this and he showed me the hotel register and sure enough for 2nd March 2 names were the first in the book and in room 309, then they were crossed out. My name was 8th on the list. I asked if they were added sequentially as people arrived, he said they were. In that case I told him, they left before I arrived as whilst they are listed as 1 & 2 and crossed out, the next entries start again from 1, not from 3 as you might expect. Something not quite right there in my opinion. He then also told me that the hotel owner who lives in Yangon is concerned that I am still there and as yet have not paid anything. I told him I had no intention of paying anything as the only reason I was still there is because my money has been stolen from the hotel, probably by a member of staff.

Today I asked Kyeemaung if I could change $20, I still have 60 thankfully, but he said they had no Kyat and proceeded to show me the till with less than 50p worth in there. Great, a hotel with no money, probably because they don't keep it there as the staff nick it! I managed to change some at a teashop over the road. I made another call from the hotel to the embassy in Yangon as I have now written off any chance of getting any money back and need to get some sent to the embassy. When I got off the phone he said I needed to pay for the calls to Yangon at 1000 Kyat each, well overpriced I am sure as you can get there by bus for 900. I once again told him I was not paying for anything whilst I am at this hotel and that I am not making phone calls for fun. He insisted the owner wanted me to pay, but I said I will not be and he would have to call the police. He then told me he would have to pay out of his own pocket. I suspect my room and phone calls have already been written off and any money I give him will go straight into his pocket.

So now I have to sit and wait and hope the money arrives before the weekend as I just want to be out of this place as soon as possible. As things stand I will not repeal as I think the police have arrested the most likely person, though I still really feel for them both especially Sawtun, who I suspect is innocent. He was arrested as he was the manager and had overall responsibilty at the time. I was a fool to leave my money in the room, over time I think I have become a bit complacent and too trustworthy of people, but I think Sawtun is a fool to let motorcycle taxi riders to have access to the keys of the hotel. I still feel that the vast majority of people in this world are good people, but just now I can trust nobody and I feel corruption is rife here.

Surprisingly I still feel pretty good in myself. I am annoyed with myself for my actions and that emotion is stronger than I feel for the loss of money. I have plenty of time to think things over, probably too much. I am sure that once I am on the move again I will get over this pretty quickly, though I am dreading carry so much cash around with me everywhere, I will probably get mugged instead.

Thanks for your comments and emails of support, they are greatly appreciated at this time, I can assure you.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Day 286 - Bago

Oh shit! I have been a naive fool and now I find myself in the middle of a right bloody mess.

Life at the Inn in Yangon was very sociable, a backpacker place and always plenty of people to talk to, but as I have to return here to a flight that only goes twice a week I decided to leave as soon as possible and finish sight seeing on my return. I departed Sunday having changed another $60 to Kyat, so I now have a great wad of cash, something I never like. This is a cash only place for foreingners as traveller's checks and cards are not accepted, so I have to carry enough dollars to see me through and buy a flight out. Once on the road it was easy to find my way past the airport, from from there on I was never quite sure I was on the right road, despite asking people at regular intervals, but it turned out I was on the right road all the time. The road was busy and rough, very wide with the only smooth bit in the middle with effectively a wide potholed hard shoulder, that gets used for undertaking. Soon I came to junction, then a toll gate, so after that the road was almost deserted, but the drivers here are the best I have seen in months, they obey the road rules and drive using their brains and not their horns. I was pretty uneventful riding up to Bago, but stinking hot reaching the low 40's.

As I arrived at Bago a big green hotel stood out, so I went there first. I was shown a room but decided to check a couple of other hotels first, but it was by far the best so I resturned there. I had to show my passport when I checked in and I was helped with baggage to the room. After a nice cool showers I went for a tea and a wander to return just one hour later. Within seconds of entering my room I realised somebody had been in my bag, all my cash had been stolen, about $1200 and 70,000 Kyat, but everything else left totally untouched. I immediately went to reception and reported it, but little seemed to be done about it. Usob, who showed me in went off to find somebody who could speak English, despite the fact he could understand what had happened. I later found out that he is actually a motorcycle taxi driver and nothing to do with the hotel. Sawton, the daytime manager seemed bemused and did nothing. I insisted that they called the police but they wanted me to wait for the English speaker. He still didn't turn up so I started to get even more angry and thrust the phone at them and told them to call the police, but they still refused. After about 5 minutes of continuing to pressure them they at last called the police but handed me the phone, they didn't speak English so I handed it back. The police were on their way and the English speakingg guy turned up, he was know as the Tall Man. He was useless, wanted to talk and refused to listen, trying to tell me that the theif had entered through the window. I am on the 4th floor, which for some reason is the first one with outside windows and there are no ledges, so very unlikely. He insisted it was very easy, but only easy to kill yourself in my opinion. The policeman arrived, in plain clothes and on a scooter. He looked more bemused than everybody else and I was told he was from the wrong police station, so he radioed another one. Eventually two more turned up on a scooter, one wearing plain clothes, the traditional 'skirt' type wrap around worn here, the other wearing a combat waistcoat. At least they showed some interest, listened and took a few notes. I took them up to the room, more notes were taken. Over the next two hours more and more police arrived, in the end about a dozens with only the radios to destinguish them, though some more had combat jackets with US Army labels. Photos were taken and sketches were made, then I was told to take a rest while they went downstairs. About an hour later the night manager, Kyeemaung, came to the room with police and asked if I wanted them to start an inquest. He explained that if one was started people would be arrested, but I suspected if I said no, then the case would be dropped so I agreed. An hour later when I went to reception the place was packed, mainly police, but some very concerned looking staff.

The next morning Kyeemaung knocked at my door and told me that Usob and Sawtun had been arrested. After some discussion I asked to be taken to see them at the police station. When I arrived there Sawtun was in an office with his hands behind his back being questioned and looking very stressed, while Usob was in the cell. The cell was a black wooden cage covered with metal mesh and barbed wire. I saw Usob inside. The cell was wooden with no beds or bedding. No food or water are supplied, but have to be supplied by family and friends, the toilet was a pot in the corner, it was the stuff that nightmares are made of. Sawtun was returned to the cell which had the be crawled into through a very low door, then his hadcuffs were removed. A friend of Usob was there, Myatko, who could speak English. He swore Usob was innocent, Usob was crying and I reached my fingers in through the mesh and he held them, I too was reduced to tears, I held my head in my hands, what a bloody mess! He assured me that he hadn't been ill treated by the police. Myatko wanted to speak to me in private, where he told me that they had both been politcial prisoners having been arrested for protesting against the government when they were students in 1998 and released in 2004. They are both still watched by the authorities who would take any opportunity to re-arrest them. The Tall Man arrived and started to talk, but again he would not listen to anything that I had to say, so I refused to talk to him anymore. Myatko wanted to speak to me away from the police station. At a teashop he said that if I repealed the case then Usob and Sawtun would raise 50% of the missing money themselves, this would mean Usob selling his motorbike and Sawtun taking out a loan. I told him I would not accept that as if they are innocent then they and I are out of pocket while an guilty person has got away with a crime, but if they were guilty then justice should be done. Justice would mean them being in prison over a year until the case came up and if found guilty then a further 7 years in prison. This leaves me with horrible moral dilemmas. The police are not really going to do anymore and have told me nothing, so really it is up to me to decide what happens to these 2 men. If I had been the police with the information I had given them then I would say one or both of them are probably guilty. By taking my passport out in reception I revealed where my cash was, they both knew which room I was in and they both saw me go out. I had taken the key with me and I suspect another key was used to get in. Once in they knew exactly where to look. Out of 5 bags it was the only one opened, not even moved from the spot where I left it. I have also been in touch with the British Embassy who have answered my legal questions but can do little for me, though they said that if they had offered me a deal it is likely the police have the right person and the money, but would be keeping some or all of it for themselves, this a a corrupt society, with a judicial system that falls far short of the west.

This morning I met again with Myatko, there have been no further developments Apparently he has also been arrested, but on a separate case, though I wouldn't be surprised if he is involved, may be he was haned the stolen money, which incidentally is the reason he has been arrested. I still haven't decided who is guilty or what to do, but I tested the waters and said I may be willing to repeal the case for a cash settlement, to which Myatko replied "If you did that they would be willing to return 50% of the money", but he quickly changed his wording. That rather makes me even more suspicious, though it seems crazy that they should steal when they must have known what would happen. I certainly suspect Usob, but I am not sure about Sawtun, he might be totally innocent. I feel very confused and my mind keeps changing about them both. They are now in different police stations and I have visited them both today and taken them some food. Sawtun is now in a bigger cell with about 7 other people, he looks very sad and frightened, but I can not communicate with him as he speaks no English. I also met his wife this morning who looks shell shocked.

Needless to say I am hardly enjoying my time here in Bago, I desperately want out of the place, but I would also like to know the truth and be sure that innocent people are no suffering. To that end I expect to be here for some time. I have a small amount of money that I had in my wallet, and I can make that last some time by eating plain rice and bread and drinking water. I boil tap water when the electricity is on, not very often. So it doesn't cost alot each day especially as I have no intention of paying for the hotel. But I don't like having this moral dilemma and it's difficult to know who I can trust, frankly I trust nobody here at the moment, not even the police. I trusted Myatko, until his choice of words this morning, now I am not so sure.

I want to continue with the tour around Myanmar, to leave now would always leave me with bad memories of the place, the wrong memories, but right now I would be more than happy to leave.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Day 283 - Yangon (Myanmar (Burma))

Heading out of Dhaka was a bit of a shock, it was really busy with blockages at traffic lights that I could just about squeeze through, yet when I had travelled the same route just 2 weeks ago it had been surprisingly clear. Still, I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare and it soon became apparent that I had even more time than I thought as I was greeted by another delayed flight, this time 2 1/2 hours. Sod it! If the delay itself wasn't bad enough, it would mean that I would miss my connecting flight from Bangkok to Yangon. At checkin it soon became obvious that most other people on the flight had the same problems, but credit to Thai Airways they looked after us pretty well, they didn't even bother to charge me excess baggage. We were provided with a complimentary meal before the flight in a nice lounge, so I sat at a laid table and used a knife and fork for the first time in weeks. A Bangladeshi in a suite sat opposite me and provided the entertainment as he desperately struggled to use the knife and fork, the knife being hidden somewhere in his lap most of the time. I then tried to change my remaining Taka into Dollars, but I was told the only bank was downstairs, then told I couldn't go to it. I managed to get somebody to take me down, but then discovered the only banks were in the arrivals area so I still couldn't get to it. In the departure area I asked the guys on the telephones booths if there was a bank and they said they would change the Taka for me, but at a very poor rate, still I had no chance of changing it elsewhere. I got 45 dollars instead of the 60 I would have expected, handed over in a very shifty manner. I counted the notes which were correct but two 10 dollar bills looked a bit dodgey to me, but as I have never seen a fake I don't really know what I am looking for.The flight was pretty uneventful and once off at Bangkok I was told that I had been put on a flight for 8:15 the following mornings, then with a few others we were whisked off to a hotel, the Miracle Hometel, sounds naff, but is far better than anything else I have stayed in on the whole trip. Once in my room it was like all my birthdays had come at once, I didn't know what I wanted to do first, lie in the big corner bath with a nice headrest in the massive bathroom, lie on the crisp white bed with my head on the feather pillow and watch the large flatscreen TV hanging on the wall, or head for the expensive looking restuarant. Wow, more missed connections for me please! First I had the bath with a nice hot cuppa, then I had dinner during which time more passengers from the flight arrived, then went back to the room to find the lock had broken. It was immensely frustrating to be locked out out of a free luxury room while 5 members of staff spent over an hour to get the door open, oh well, such is life.

The following morning my 5am alarm call for the 6am shuttle came at 4:30. At 5:45 they rang and asked me to check out, then I was told to have breakfast, something I don't have to be told twice, especially when a full cooked breakfast is on offer. I wasn't really hungry, but it would have been rude not to do my best as there were another 5 staff and only me to make the wonderful buffet worth their effort. 6:15 came when they asked me what time I wanted to leave, `6 o'clock` I replied, but it was still another 10 minutes before me and one other left. The new airport at Bangkok is massive and state of the art. Like Heathrow it acts as a hub so was really busy, but the queues at immigration were a nightmare to the extent I was getting concerned I would miss the flight, so once through I dashed past all the massive duty free area only to find another big queue for security checking. If I waited I really would miss the flight and on asking to be helped through to the front I was just told I had to ask the other passengers, a great help. I walked up to the front and asked one guy if I could go in front, he just looked at me as though he didn't understand a word, so I took that as a yes, so thankfully I made it. A short one hour flight and we had at last landed in Yangon where immigration was really swift, as was baggage reclaim, well most of it. I collected all my bags, by which time most other people had gone, then went to outsize baggage, but no bike. I asked around and somebody went off to find it but came back empty handed. Every time I fly with a bike I half expect something to go astray and now it had. I filled out the forms at the Thai desk run by a women who didn't seem concerned at all, but when you are cycling to Australia it's a bit of a bugger if you haven't got a bike! So after being assured it would turn up in 24hrs I had to get a taxi into town. I checked in at a lodge and asked them to change a 10 dollar bill for the taxi fare and they confirmed my suspicion about the 2 notes by rejecting them both but at least I now know what to look for, but talking to others later it seems that the Burmese reject anything that isn't quite perfect. Yangon is only a short flight from Dhaka, but the changes are instantly noticeable. It's even hotter here for a start, I can't believe that 2 weeks ago I was huddled with others around a fire, now I have a permanent sweat. They drive on the right here, a surprise to me and something they changed to in 1970 to break away from what the Brits had implemented, though most vehicle still seem to have the steering where on the right too. The people and the language are also very different. For 3 months I have been in Indian/Hindu type cultures and languages, now it seems to reflect China and Buddism, the people looking and sounding very different. Around 9pm I got a phone call. There was only one person who knew where I was so it had to be good news, my bike had arrived at the airport.

So today I got the 7am free shuttle bus to the airport, so much for a lie in on the first day that I haven't moved on in 2 weeks. Thankfully somebody at the airport recognised me from yesterday and showed me where to go for the paperwork, somewhere I would never have found on my own, then he took me to customs which was in the domestic terminal, what a dump and another place I would never have found, but there was my bike, oh joy! I headed back into the city and with every bit of good news comes bad news. Thai Airways no longer fly from Mandalay to Chang Mai, so I checked out a couple of travel agents. You can only fly from Chang Mai to Mandalay, not the other way, so that means I have to do another round trip, so I will be in Myanmar longer than I expected or wanted to be. I also found out which roads tourists can travel on and its somewhat restricted. I think life here is going to be interesting. The rest of the day had been spent washing and then doing a bit of sight seeing. I was amazed how black the water was, even on the 2nd and 3rd attempts, when I did the washing. With it being so hot and sticky here I am going to have to do my washing more often than once a month!

I would have liked to stop another day here, but I will head off tomorrow as I am bound to have to wait a day or two for a flight when I get back. It's so much easier when you can cross the borders by road.