Golden rocks and Mandalay magic

Myanmar is changing at light speed. Guidebooks are essentially obsolete the moment they are printed. Advice given from visitors a month ago, no longer applies. Almost all the changes are pleasant, though, and show off Myanmar as a country adapting to the needs of its booming tourist industry. We’ve seen plenty of ATMs and even Visa/MasterCard signs, and some of the more hectic tourist trails have been smoothed into pretty slick operations. Maybe this is the country losing its rustic charm, but for flashpackers like us, it just makes the whole experience far more relaxed and enjoyable.

This was really evident at the wonderful Golden Rock pagoda, a few hours drive from Yangon. We stopped at a giant reclining Buddha and a monastery in Bago along the way, where we could see 3/400 monks lining up for lunch. It’s imperative that women don’t touch the monks – a fact that becomes important later! The peaceful atmosphere of the monks is shattered by the snapping of camera shutters. We arrived at 10.15 (guidebooks say lunch is at 10.30) but we had the place virtually to ourselves, and we enjoyed the gentle serenity. That all changed at 11 when dozens of (better informed) tour buses stopped by!

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From Bago, we drove to the base of the Golden rock mountain, where we were loaded onto a locals bus to take the trip up to the top. In this case – with two 6ft+ men squeezing onto tiny backless benches alongside 70 others on the back of a pick-up truck – it probably wasn’t the best idea. Worse, Tania and I were sandwiched between monks in front and monks behind, all desperately wriggling away from us. Oh dear.

The journey was then mostly harrowing switchbacks and a juddering engine, but it took us all the way up to the top (an hour and many sore legs/backs later). We had anticipated an hour long hike after the cramped bus, but fortunately the bus now travels further up he mountain so it was only a short distance to our hotel!

The one thing all the guidebooks and fellow travellers have gotten spot on is the friendliness of the people – I’m not sure I’ve ever had more welcoming service from our hotel, Mountain Top Hotel. From there it was only a 5 minute walk to the golden rock itself, although the journey took considerably longer due to the amazing photo opportunities at every turn!

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The Golden rock is a major pilgrimage site in Myanmar, an enormous rock covered in layers of gold leaf, which precariously balances on the mountainside on a strand of Buddha’s hair. We arrived around 4.30, which gave us plenty of opportunity to watch the sky around the rock blaze bright reds and oranges against a dramatic foreground of clouds. Adam and Lofty were able to apply a square of gold leaf to the rock itself (a privilege only offered to men), but it was a great experience all around.

The rest of the site lit up in technicolor strings of lights (not that dissimilar from one Niagara Falls – at least, that’s what we were reminded of!) as the sun went down. A pretty surreal sight.

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A 5.30am wake up call saw us watching the sun rise from our room. Why is it only when travelling that I can stand to get up so early?

The next day, we were able to have a goodbye meal with Nick, who has been our host in Yangon. We have absolutely no doubt that we would have missed out in so many local haunts if not for him – our last night in a delicious pizza restaurant, L’Opera, was proof of that! He’s witness first hand to the myriad changes in Myanmar since his posting started over a year ago, and it’s been fascinating getting to learn more.

Another early wake up call (why?!) was this time for our flight to Mandalay. Of course, this blog wouldn’t be complete without a Myanmar mishap – this time, one of our number was out for the count with a nasty stomach bug. Hand sanitiser necessary all the way!

Mandalay is a city of contrasts – more dusty streets and bad traffic than the romantic images you might associate with Kiplings version if Mandalay. Still, we found some real gems by wandering (read: dodging mopeds!) through the streets to a gold pounding factory – where they make the gold leaf that Lofty used in Golden rock. We then started to walk up the Palace, surrounded by a huge moat, but with heat and time running away from us, we hopped in a taxi to visit… Drumroll… The world’s biggest book! How could I resist?

While actually being a series of 729 stone tablets each within its own whitewashed pagoda, it still took 1200 monks six months to read it all in relay, which probably makes it just about longer than A Storm of Swords.

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Last stop in Mandalay was Mandalay Hill for – you guessed it – another sunset. A 45minute walk straight up stairs in bare feet was almost more than my poor, soft Western feet could take, but I survived on a drip supply of lychee juice (I’m addicted) and interactions with the few locals dotted about.

Tomorrow, more early starts and adventures await. Myanmar isn’t disappointing yet!

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Welcome to Myanmar, tiger tiger… or is it?

I’m sitting here covered in cuts and bruises, every muscle aching and sore, having narrowly avoided an awkward interaction with a cobra and picked several leeches off my friend’s body.

No, our plane didn’t crash in the middle of the Myanmar jungle. Instead, I was talked into a 9km ‘Hash’ run with the Yangon Hash Harriers… but that isn’t even the start of our story!

The Myanmar mishaps (or is it Burma blunders?) began at Heathrow airport at 5.15am, where Tania (one half of the couple L and I are travelling with) was refused entry on to the plane. Her passport was only valid for the next 5 ½ months, as opposed to the 6 months “required”… thank goodness she has dual citizenship (and therefore a second passport) so she was able to rush back and get on the flight the next day.

We didn’t know that, however, as we unhappily said goodbye to Tania to go through security. Two six-hour flights later… we landed in Yangon, one person missing but happy to have heard that Tania had managed to secure a flight, which meant we could relax a bit into our journey.

Yangon/Rangoon is a beautiful city, much calmer than any other place in South-East Asia I’ve been in terms of traffic and people. It has the most number of colonial buildings of any city in SE Asia, which lends it a really gorgeous, lost city-type of vibe. We are so lucky to be staying with a friend who works for the British embassy in Myanmar, so we have lots of great local knowledge on our side!

We walked on a lovely boardwalk across Kandawgyi Lake in absolutely blazing heat, spotting some temples along the way. The three of us were very knackered during lunch, so it wasn’t long until we were ready to head back for nap.

At the start of the Yangon hash

At the start of the Yangon hash

Then began my real adventure. The boys were too tired (read: they wimped out) but I tagged along with Nick for my Hash Harrier adventure. ‘Hash’es are organized runs that happen throughout the world, led by ‘hares’ who mark the run with shredded paper. Hash runners are known as ‘runners with a drinking problem’ or ‘drinkers with a running problem’, depending on how you look at it! The runs can be any length and can take you through any part of town – ours was quite rural, which was lovely, and also quite long! I definitely didn’t expect to be running 9km, but I was already there so why not?

The first half of run felt like more of a bush walk. We headed straight out into fields and long grasses, filled with thorns and uncertain footpaths – not really your ideal running route! I quickly fell to the back of the group, and thought I was dead last – but it turned out I was just dead last of the people who managed to keep up and not get lost! I was determined not to get lost, so even if I felt tired, I wasn’t going to lose sight of the person in front.

Spot the runners...

Spot the runners…

We ran through some quite deep mud (about mid-shin – and it might not have been all mud, if you get my drift), which led to leeches! Thankfully I avoided them, but Nick wasn’t so lucky with three of the buggers latching on. I did spot the cobra though, slithering through the grass ahead of me, so I think I won! Nick jumped about a mile after I spotted it…! No picture, unfortunately, as it was moving too fast.

The second half of the run was much easier – through little villages where I could see a slice of country life. We finished the run in a brewery (natch) called Dagon beverages, where I collapsed – sweaty and exhausted – but actually feeling way more energetic before. Turns out maybe the best jet lag cure is a whole lot of exercise! I had my Hash induction – downing an entire beer in front of the 60-odd runners – and came back home, tired but happy.

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We were up early the next morning  to meet Tania, who finally made it to Myanmar! The group was complete!!

My legs and ankles were pretty sore from the run, but we had a jam-packed day ahead. We started out at Nagar glass factory, which had been completely destroyed by the cyclone in 2008. The family who runs it has been creating blown glass wonders for years, but not since the cyclone. While their kiln and buildings were ruined, the glass – which had always been stored outside – has remained, in a surreal jungle-like atmosphere. It’s like an Alice-in-Jungleland type glass menagerie, a forest floor that sparkles and glitters with coloured glass sculptures. They don’t have the money to restart the kiln again, but there are wonderful glass treasures to be found, which can be polished up to mirror shine. Needless to say, we spent plenty of kyat there, and spent an age chatting to the knowledgeable owner.

The 'natural warehouse', a glass wonderland

The ‘natural warehouse’, a glass wonderland

For lunch, we had our first taste of Burmese food – which was absolutely delicious. Where I would almost immediately turn my nose up at ‘salad’ (especially while on holiday!), Burmese salads are amazing, especially the tea leaf salad, tomato salad and aubergine salad. We also shared some curries and Bago coconut noodles – all scrumptious. Burmese food, thumbs up!

In the afternoon we wandered around downtown Yangon, looking at all the colonial buildings. Afternoon tea at The Strand filled us all up with amazing cakes and snacks, while feeling very posh despite our traveller wear.

Then came the absolute highlight of the entire trip (yes, even more than the 9km run!): Shwedagon Paya. This might be the most beautiful temple complex I have ever seen, shining like a golden crown above the city. We arrived just before sunset, watching the sky change from blue to indigo to black, and the temple change from bright gold to burning orange as the monks and worshippers lit candles that illuminated the riches all around. It is a full moon tonight, which meant the temple was packed with people. Even so, it was a magical place.

Shwedagon at sunset...

Shwedagon at sunset…

In Buddhist culture, it is best to pray to the specific animal which corresponds to the day of the week you were born on. Lofty, born on a Friday, is a guinea pig. Lucky him! Adam and Tania were both Hinta birds (or garruda birds). And what was I? A tiger, of course! I am also a year of a tiger in Chinese astrology, which makes me a Tiger Tiger. This, clearly, made my entire day.

After Shwedagon, Nick took us to a bar that must have one of the best views in the world: overlooking the golden temple at night. A few cocktails later, we agreed this was one of the best starts to a trip ever – missed flights and scratched up legs included.

View from the best bar in town...

View from the best bar in town…

Bring on more, Myanmar! We can take it…

 

 

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Inspiration vlogs: Wadi Rum desert, Jordan

Oops – I’ve been rather neglecting the blog. You might forgive me though as it is one of the most hectic weeks in publishing: the week of London Book Fair! Last week I partied with George RR Martin and some of the Game of Thrones cast members at the Tower of London, went to my first ever party as an author (hopefully more on that when I can share the good news!), and – of course – worked the rights centre at LBF, trying to discover the next big talent for Voyager. Phew!

Now, back to regular blogging, I hope. Or in this case, maybe it’s back to vlogging? Here’s the next video in my ‘inspiration series’ of videos, this time set in the immense Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Most of The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is set in a desert, and I always love a desert’s stark, barren beauty. I’ve seen where sand dunes touch the ocean in Namibia, been to the world’s smallest desert in the Yukon (the Carcross desert), shooed away flies in the Australian outback, but the Wadi Rum desert really took me by surprise not only for its rainbow coloured sands and immense rock formations, but also because of the people who I met there – the Bedouins – who were happy to demonstrate their way of life to us pesky tourists. You definitely get the feeling that the Bedouin harbour far more secrets than they share, however, and in a place like Wadi Rum, you can hide multitudes – even entire cities. That’s the kind of detail that goes straight into my novel.

This video is a little more awkward than the others, as we had to shoot it in one take before the sun disappeared completely. Hope you enjoy!

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Travel round-up… and all that fantasy authors have to live up to.

Well, the trip is over and I’m finally home after a quick pitstop in Vienna. Already I’ve had one day at work and it hardly feels like I’ve been gone at all! Oh yes, except when I came back after work and sorted through all 1,500 photos (just that many?)… it’s been an unbelievable experience, and I can’t recommend Oasis Overland highly enough. We saw loads but barely had to make a single decision – which made it incredibly relaxing too. The pace was great, and we never felt rushed through a site (or, for that matter, bored of one!)

Highlights?

  • Camel ride to the Pyramids of Giza
  • Abu Simbel
  • Haggling the markets of Aswan
  • Hot-air ballooning over Luxor
  • Tomb of Rameses VI in the Valley of the Kings
  • My quattro stagioni birthday cake in Hurghada
  • Breakfast at Shams in Dahab
  • Night Dive bioluminesence
  • Wadi Rum scenery
  • That first glimpse of the Treasury in Petra

Egypt and Jordan are both destinations that have been high on the ‘to visit’ list for quite some time, but that desire became even more heightened after selling The Oathbreaker’s Shadow. I’ve got a few videos coming up (probably over next week) that will tell you exactly why these far-flung destinations mean so much to the book.

But even more than being just ‘inspiration’, being privileged enough to actually visit these sights and not just stare wistfully at other people’s travel blogs has been a humbling experience. As an avid reader of fantasy, I’m used to being swept away to exotic locations that I can never hope to visit. But the more I travel, the more I’ve come to realize that, as fantasy authors have our work cut out for us trying to imagine anything more weird and wonderful than some of the locations that already exist on this planet.

But boy, do we have fun trying.

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Petra, city of wonders.

When we walked into Petra, our guide Ibrahim had only one comment: it’s totally empty. He recounted a story of being there in 2010 and barely being able to move through the Siq – the thin fissure in the rock which marks the entrance to the main city. Apart from camel drivers, donkey touts and another group of French tourists, it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

Which for us was, of course, fantastic.

I think the beauty of Petra is impossible to describe in words. Honestly, even photographs don’t do it justice. At one point in the Siq, our guide told us to stop and close our eyes. He then manoeuvred us 15 paces through the rock, positioned us in a line and made the big reveal. The first glimpse of The Treasury peeking through the rock, the contrast between the natural and the ornate so extreme here.

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The Treasury is the Petra show stopper, and it also stands as a testament to what the mysterious Nabatean civilisation achieved: a blend of Egyptian, Roman, Greek and their own construction, a welcome touch of home for weary travellers and a great display of wealth for wily traders. That the Bedouins managed to keep the city so secret for so long adds to the wonder, of a city lost to time and to history.

Beyond the Treasury (once you can tear your eyes from it), the vastness of the city continues behind. I think this is what I didn’t expect of Petra – just how BIG it is. In all, with a big hike up to the Monastery area (another immense structure), we spent 10 hours exploring the site. By the end of it, as the sun was setting, we were all exhausted and awed. And even that felt like barely scratching the surface.

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Sadly, it’s now the end of the trip. We are currently in the Christian city of Madaba, having had a float on the Dead Sea, visited Mt Nebu, where Moses died, and St George’s Church, which contains one of the earliest examples of a map, in the form of a mosaic on the floor. Stunning.

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