Trivial thoughts about Myanmar 

Despite it feeling like only yesterday when I landed in Yangon, I am suffering from the exhaustion of having packed so much into two brief weeks in Myanmar. 
I’ve travelled up and down rivers, flown across the country and even boated to a village in the middle of a lake.

It’s been a whirlwind, but here are just some of the trivial curiosities I noticed about this enigmatic land:

– There are pagodas. Lots of them. Everywhere. I knew Buddhism was important here but seriously, you cannot move for pagodas and stupas.

– Speaking of religious worship, the amount of gold leaf that is around decorating these structures meant that I had Spandau Ballet’s song ‘Gold’ in my head for the entire duration of my trip. 

– When you enter a shop you are invariably followed by two or three Burmese shop assistants, silently. I went into a shop in Bagan and was so put off by the three girls shadowing me I completely forgot what it was I went in for and had to leave.

– The railway circuit in Yangon, taking in most of the city, costs about 20p a ticket. (Sort it out, London). 

– Burmese food is happiest when dripping. Only touristy places offer this strange notion of “grilled” meat.

– Everytime you enter a temple you have to take off your shoes. Presumably, Burmese people have developed Hobbit like hard-feet. 

– The local lager is actually pretty good. Mostly it’s a choice between Myanmar beer or Mandalay beer. Both are fairly light but refreshing in the Burmese heat.

– The watermelon here is the juiciest and tastiest I have ever tasted. 

– Burmese people can’t get enough of images or statues of Buddha. One cave we went to had more than 8,000 statues in there. That’s a lot of Buddha. 

– Golden Rock is exactly that – a big golden rock. Who knew.

– There is no apparent resentment towards the British. In fact, the people seem quite the Anglophiles and like the Queen, the Premier League and practicing their English. 

At no point did I not feel safe or welcome in Myanmar. 

Definitely a place to revisit, with so much more to see.


Myanmar – thoughts on the worship of the past 

Already when I was planning my trip to Myanmar I was excited at the prospect of seeing plenty of ancient temples.Having been here for only five days now, I’ve lost count of how many I have visited – and more are on my agenda. 

This country has gone through so many changes over the 20th century. Since gaining independence from the British in 1948, it was governed very strictly by a military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011.

Outside influences have been limited, meaning there is a way of life that has been preserved here that is unlike many of Myanmar’s immediate neighbours crawling with tourists.

But what has struck me most is just how dominating religion is here. Buddhism permeates almost every aspect of life. You cannot move without seeing some form of representation of Buddha. 

Like pubs in England, almost every street has a temple. Myanmar has a plethora of pagodas. At these holy sites which are covered in gold and decorated with exaggerated opulence, you see young and old worshipping and praying. 

On entering any holy place, one has to remove their shoes. This may heighten the holy atmosphere, yet there are still stalls inside trying to sell tourists various bits of Burmese handcrafts. 

That’s not where the money goes though, at least not from the locals. They pour their hard earned money at the feet of Buddha, as offerings. They wash the statues face, they touch some monuments for good luck. At the Mahamuni temple in Mandalay, men use their money to buy gold leaf to then place it on the central statue of Buddha.

This particular statue was built in 1884 after the original burnt down and seeing a picture from 1901 shows its former svelte state. Now, the feet are hardly visible amongst the swells of gold and Buddha is altogether sporting a much fuller figure.

I couldn’t help but wonder, with all this gold and various riches around how far could it go in serving community? If it were melted and sold, could it not feed 5,000 for instance? Would Buddha want this? To be constantly offered things that mean little to him? 

This type of religious opulence is of course not exclusive to Buddhism. Christianity certainly does grandeur and opulence extremely well. In Vienna last year, I went to an exhibition they had on religious treasures. Again, it was huge gold ornaments from the Middle Ages. Serving no other purpose but to impress the Lord, one imagines.

Religious influence

I’m no theologian (ed: well, duh) but it seems to me that the core of religion is about leading a simple life, not attaching oneself to material goods or things. For the real riches are in heaven, not on this mortal plain. Wouldn’t reaching out to help those who are needy in society rather than spending money on yet another vast structure be a more fulfilling way to worship whatever deity you believe in? If you do believe in something that is. 

I don’t know. These are just thoughts that occurred to me as I wander this enigmatic and beautiful country. 

It must be very hard given the limited access Myanmar has had to the outside world to question anything other than what you have been brought up on. As seen throughout history, it is largely from religion where education has blossomed. So people in Myanmar may have been indoctrinated in their faith from birth and know nothing else.

I’m not saying this is wrong, or bad, or foolish. It’s simply curious to one fortunate to have been brought up in a developed country and given a choice of whether to include religion in his life or not.

But signs of another deity worship are clear from travelling wide and far across Myanmar. Inside houses, alongside pictures of the Buddha are images of Aung Yan Suu Kyi. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a sweeping victory in the 2015 general election. 

Suu Kyi is president in all but name having still been prohibited due to her marriage to a non-Burmese person. This can’t be changed without a military legislator. The former government are not letting go of control without a fight.

But she represents the future of Myanmar’s hopes and dreams, as tourists flock in greater numbers to see those of the past.

Nepal earthquake aftershocks – not just beneath the earth

It’s a bright sunny day as I depart Nepal. The country where I have been based for the past six weeks has been very kind to me – startlingly so, for one so used to the cold and aloof streets of London. 
It’s still hard for me to grasp how the Nepali people can remain so upbeat, so friendly, so curious when they have difficult circumstances.

The poverty, the fuel crisis in the middle of winter, and the continuing earthquake threat would trouble anyone’s mind on a daily basis. 

Indeed, there is the sign that underneath it all the psychological wounds are still raw. 

Last Friday, there was an aftershock or mini earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale in Nepal. 

In my hotel in Kathmandu, I felt my chair wobble initially followed by the ground shaking and my eyes widened at the sight of the pillars of the building moving side to side.

It was over in a matter of seconds, thankfully nothing having fallen on me.

But news emerged this week that more than 70 people had been injured – and a number of those were maimed from jumping out of windows as soon as the earth began to quake. 

What I have heard most from people I’ve spoken to is how so many are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They’ve diagnosed themselves, as there is no official programme to help rebuild the mindset after such devastation in April 2015 when almost 9,000 people were killed. 

That someone should immediately take their chance jumping out of a window at one rumble under the ground highlights the amount of fear that permeates the Nepali psyche at the moment. 

Reminders of the destruction are everywhere, especially in Kathmandu where rubble is just piled up a lot of the time, not even cleared away. Some reconstruction is going on but the government still is dragging its feet in allocating relief funds for reconstruction.

Even then, a lot of the structures being rebuilt are being built to the same spec as before. So if another earthquake happens, and a large one is unfortunately predicated under Kathmandu, the country will be back to square one.

Initially, what brought me to Nepal was a desire to do something to help the disaster relief as a volunteer. Whenever I have been asked why I came to Nepal and I explain the aforementioned reason, the locals have said “thank you so much. This is very kind of you to help our country.” 

But leaving now I can’t shake this overwhelming sense of sadness. Not only because I have fallen in love with this country; it’s stunning landscapes and extremely affable population, but because I feel guilty about abandoning a fragile country hiding a fragile mindset.

Dream come true – a reflective adventure in Bhutan

They said it would take on average two to and a half hours – such was my excitement and determination, it took me just an hour and 15 minutes to hike up to the beautiful Tiger’s Nest monastery in Paro, Bhutan.
I had stared at pictures of this place for so long it was very surreal to see it with my own eyes. It was if it is a fake, a highly decorative but hollow structure upon closer inspection, like the castle at Disneyland.

But it wasn’t. 

As I got closer the sound of the waterfall close by was the perfect soundtrack for this haven of peace that filled me with awe just looking at it. It wasn’t just the altitude and the fast hiking that had taken my breath away. 

The security guard informed me I was the first to arrive on that chilly Sunday morning.

As I walked around, having been asked to leave my phone and camera in a locker before entering, I could not stop smiling. The decorations were stunning and every detail as intricate as the brush strokes on the Sistine chapel, or the carvings on La Sagrada Familia. 

The serenity was startling, even though one expects it from a place like this. Back home we may roll our eyes at people who talk of having an inner peace, and letting go of the importance we place on material goods or money.

But here, you see people just content to live; the basic human instinct. How we forget that in our world. My guide told me that in Bhutan the Gross National Happiness survey revealed more than 95% of the population of Bhutan were happy. I replied that the opposite was more likely in London. 

I took a moment to sit with some monks who were meditating and closed my eyes to enjoy the peace, the quiet chanting from a distant temple room, and the smell of the mountain incense wafting slowly around like a spirit in itself. I said a prayer to whoever was listening for family and friends.

I also thought about my late Grandma. She was fond of dragons, and Bhutan being the land of the thunder dragon, proudly displays it’s national, mythical creature almost every where you go. 

The country only has a population of around 700,000, which helps the feeling of peace and serenity wherever you go as the cities are not built up and cars don’t dominate the streets.

What dominates though is Buddhism. There is a temple on almost every corner. In three days I visited almost a dozen temples, ranging from medieval times to the present day. 

One modern temple is situated beneath a giant statue of Buddha which overlooks the capital city of Thimpu. It reminded me of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, watching over the city and its people. 

Religion has been a part of some awful conflicts throughout history, and continues to do so today.

But in large swathes it also brings many tremendous comfort and peace. As ever, it comes down to the human being and their actions – not necessarily just what they believe in. 

Another comfort to the people of Bhutan is the King and Queen. The monarchy is extremely popular, especially now with the birth of a son – the future king. 

The country is going through rapid development as it seeks to boost tourism.  

I may have got just a small, brief snapshot of this fascinating country – but it’s an experience I will treasure and never forget. 

Trekking in Nepal – Where Every Day is Leg Day

“Going trekking, sir?”, “What trek do you want to do today?”, “Come to me for best price for trekking!”
Walking down many streets in Nepal these questions get thrown to a foreigner almost every step. 

There is a reason though, for much of Nepal is taken up by the immense Himalaya mountain range; home to nine of the ten highest peaks on earth.

Just to see one of the majestic peaks with my own eyes would fulfil a lifelong ambition, so with that I took up a short four day trek in the Annapurna Himalaya region from Pokhara this week.

I was told to take my thermals, rent a large fleece-lined gortex coat and wear warm clothing. So off I set along with my guide, Dhan, dressed in my newly acquired trekking garb ready for the harsh mountain climate.

After 10 minutes of climbing, I was stripping off clothes from my sweat drenched body. It wasn’t just the midday Nepali sun, but the sheer steepness of the rocky steps climbing their way into the sky en route to our first stop in Ghandruk.

What I had not taken into account was just how exhausting the climb would be, and therefore heat producing. 

Up and up we climbed. Every time you thought you had completed a significant chunk of stairs, there would be a whole new set waiting just a few paces away. 

Fortunately, my preference for including leg workouts in my gym routine meant I was faring better than my guide who admitted usually he was the fast one.

Everlasting climb

It was no less gruelling though. It reminded me of a childhood adventure book I had where you could choose the destiny of an Arthurian knight by making certain decisions. One of the punishments for the wrong decision was the knight was doomed to climb an everlasting staircase, growing older and older but never reaching the top.

Fortunately, here there was an end to the climb. But only briefly. On the second day, our route started to be scattered with patches of snow. Soon ice appeared, and then all of a sudden we were in a winter wonderland. One wrong step though and it would have been a wonderland of pain. The drop off the cliff edges looked bottomless as the mist clung to the rocks, outstaying its welcome from the morning all day.

We were making good time however. Dhan informed me that every village we came through, they said to him “are you guys running?! Why are you here so early?”

That was a comfort going to bed in the guest house at night that was as basic as you would imagine. That’s not a complaint, though. I would spend my evenings not reading emails or Facebook, but reading my battered copy of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ while sitting around a log fire. There were no other sounds to be heard but the distant bells of the mountain goats or mules.

Rising up

The highlight of the trip was the early rise on the third morning. At 6am, we left our guest house in frozen Ghorepani to begin our ascent to Poonhill, a spectacular viewpoint I had been told to watch the sunrise. The climb took half an hour, but with no breakfast it felt a lot longer. My momentum kept my legs swinging upward, even though by this stage they had begun to make physical complaints.

Upon reaching the top, 3210m above sea level (more than a third of Everest, just saying), it was indeed a breathtaking sight even before the sun had made its appearance.

The peaks of the Annapurna mountains pierced the sky in front of us, while it was such a clear day that distant Himalayas could be seen – rising up from the ground like the spine of a stegosaurus. 

Once the sun broke through though and cast the first light on Annapurna south, the sky was turned a beautiful shade of orange tinged with purple.

It’s odd why sunrise should evoke such powerful emotions in us. I suppose maybe it’s because it’s in our nature to appreciate it. It is the end of darkness, a light shining bright on all the shadows in the world, bringing a new beginning. 

I stood in awe as the sun set the tips of the mountains alight. It reminded me of that wonderful scene in Lord of the Rings where the beacons are lit, one by one.

Not forgetting my roots, I opted to have a picture taken against one of the stunning backdrops with my Tottenham Hotspur scarf aloft and the team’s shirt proudly upon my chest. You can take the boy out of north London…

The way back down was no easier than going up. In a way it was harder, my calves straining with the steep steps leading down the hills to our starting point in Nayapul.

Despite that, I would go straight back and do it all again. It was such a wonderful experience I can only think of six words that best sum it up: You must see it for yourself.