Author Archives: Arthur - Nony Traveler

About Arthur - Nony Traveler

Was: BBC journalist/producer/editor Am: Spinning the globe, travelling and writing.

Wonder Socks Have Lift Off

Just thought I’d post you a short update on the British launch of Around The World In Wonder Socks.

My old home town of Rhyl did me proud. I was invited to cut the ribbon to officially open the new studio of Point FM radio station and then took part in a half hour interview. Even the mayor turned up.

Later in the day there was standing room only for a talk I gave at the town library. The event was a little late starting as more chairs had to be brought in, always a good sign. I’m sure the free wine on offer had very little to do with the high turnout!

Better still there was a queue to buy the book, although it was admittedly short.

I’ve added a gallery of pictures from the two events so you can get a sense of it.

I’m now in for a busy couple of weeks  promoting the book. I have a number of talks and regional and national radio interviews lined up.. For those of you who’ve asked they’ll all be available live via the Internet. They can also be listened to via the web as ‘listen again’ features. As they are all BBC stations they’ll be broadcast in top quality.

Here’s the latest schedule, click on the links to hear:

Wed Sept 9th BBC Radio Northampton 2pm (UK) 11pm (AUS)

Fri Sept 11th BBC Radio Wales 10.30am (UK) 7.30pm (AUS)

Wed Sept 16th BBC Three Counties 1030am  (UK) 7.30pm (AUS)

Thurs Sept 17th BBC Coventry and Warwickshire (UK) 1030 am 7.30pm (AUS)

Click on any thumbnail picture to see the gallery full frame.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Listen To My Book Launch Live

The big day is almost here.

The official launch of Around The World In Wonder Socks will take place on radio on Friday, September 4th. I will be appearing in the new studios of the North Wales station Point FM 103.1  in my hometown of Rhyl.

Courtesy of the internet you can hear every word. Simply click on the above link and then press the ‘Listen Live’ tab. Select  ‘Having Problems Listening? Click Here’. I should then be coming through loud and clear.

Alternatively, try this link which will go straight through to the on-air programme  198.91.92.124:1031/listen.pls

You can even be part of it. Join in by writing your thoughts or comments in the ‘Contact the studio box’. Wherever you might be in the world I’d love to hear from you.

I’ll be on air after the news which will be at:

12 noon – UK

1pm – Germany

6pm – Thailand

9pm – Australia EST

7am – New York

If you happen to be in Rhyl you can also come to second part of the launch. I’ll be giving a talk on Around The World In Wonder Socks at the library at 6pm. The wine is on me!

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Happy listening,

Arthur

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Around The World In Wonder Socks

 

‘A JOY AND A DELIGHT’             ‘THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF ESCAPE’

 

Eleven days ago I received three proof copies of my book for final approval. I am very happy to announce the final hurdle has now been successfully cleared. This morning I took delivery of 50 copies of  catalogue number ISBN 9781514758861, better known as Around The World In Wonder Socks. Published at last!

The book’s UK launch will be in my home town of Rhyl on Friday, September 4th. However, it is available to buy now as a printed book or in downloadable Kindle format from Amazon. If you are in the UK just click on  Around The World In Wonder Socks (UK)   for those of you in Australia and the rest of the world click on Around The World In Wonder Socks (AUS)

I have a busy schedule of author talks and radio and newspaper interviews lined up in the UK throughout September. At the end of the month I’ll be heading back to Australia for more of the same.

For those of you who followed my journey through this blog I would like to say a big thank you for your support. As a token of my gratitude I want to to make you a special offer. If you order either a print or kindle version of the book and don’t thoroughly enjoy it let me know by October 1st and I will refund the full cover price, no questions asked (postage not included).*

There is also a new website/blog dedicated to the book which will include reviews, news updates and details of how to read or hear interviews. Please take a look and subscribe for updates by clicking on  Arthurpenlington.com and then hitting the Follow button.

My first review is in, it’s by John Simpson, Britain’s best known TV correspondent. He wrote, “Many congratulations on a delightful book. When somebody has the courage to cut his ties with convention and the boring way of doings things, and writes about it with charm and wit, it’s likely to be worth reading. Your book is a joy and a delight, and I’d recommend it to anyone — whether they were in something of the same position or not. It’s the ultimate book of escape.’

If you do buy the book I really hope you have a fun time reading it. Please also write a review on Amazon, even just a few words, you’d be surprised how much it helps.

Thanks again and my very best wishes

Arthur

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*Must have been a registered Thenony subscriber by August 26th 2015.

 

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized | 18 Comments

My New Book Has Arrived

It’s been a long time in the making but I’ve just reached a milestone in finally getting the book of my travels published. Three proof copies have arrived for me to check for errors and issues.

Please have a look at the video below to share in what was quite a moment!

After the vote for a title and a few suggestions along the way, I combined a couple of the most popular ideas. The book is called Around The World In Wonder Socks and it has a sub heading of Travel tales of a Nony – Not old not young, somewhere in the middle.

It will be available through Amazon.com very soon. I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 67 Comments

Your help needed NOW

Hi everybody. It’s been quite a while since I wrote anything on the blog but behind the scenes I’ve been beavering away. You’ll no doubt be thrilled and delighted to know I’ve been busy working on a book.

I am currently going through the laborious, last-minute technical stuff, like actually getting it published. However, I’m in need of some help. I can’t decide on a title. This is where you come in.

Listed below are some alternatives. Please take a look, click on your favourite then hit the Vote button. If you’re not overly impressed with any then you have a voting option for that too – I won’t be offended. You can also add alternatives or comments. The View Results button will show the current voting.

The book is supposedly, hopefully, travel/humour, so I might add a second line to the title to help explain it’s a traveller’s tale.

September looks like release date. I’ll keep you posted when I know for sure.

Thanks for your help.

Arthur

Categories: Uncategorized | 55 Comments

Time to go home

Numbers, like words, can paint a picture, tell their own story. They can give you insight and understanding.
The numbers on my journey are all telling me the same thing. It’s time to go home.
I left Australia on April 16th 2013, almost an entire calendar has flipped over since then.
Here’s a few of the other numbers.
I’ve visited 19 countries, admittedly Singapore was a single night on a visa run from Thailand (thanks for the bed Liz and David).
I’ve taken 47 flights (that’s a hell of a lot of airports).
Seven pairs of thongs (flip flops) have been used and abused. Seven is also the magic number for hats.
I’ve got through two pairs of prescription sunglasses. I lost one, bought a replacement in Vietnam, lost them in Cambodia (note to self, must check hotel rooms thoroughly before leaving).
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And then we come to the big number. I’ve slept in 142 different beds! They’ve ranged from tiny to huge, soft to concrete-like. Sometimes the bedding has lacked a little cleanliness other times it’s been non-existent and I’ve slept on my own towel.
This is blog 36 (anybody out there still reading?) There could have been many more.
There were stories I tried to write but which somehow defeated and defied me. My first attempt at yoga on the island of Gili Air was a near miss.
I had two marriage offers on the same day……now that blog really should have been written.
I wanted to tell you about Christmas and New Year’s Eve with two wonderful Thai sisters of mercy and some lovely strangers from across the globe.
Dancing the night away in the basement of a Bangkok car park was another memorable night.
I wanted to pass on some of the pearls of wisdom I’ve picked up on my travels. I now know the best time to commit a driving offence in Mandalay. The answer is after 5.30pm (all the traffic cops finish work then so the country’s strict motorbike helmet rules are immediately ignored).
I could have explained the best method for eating green curry while lying down in a cinema. Or how you’re never more than three feet from a crowing cockerel or a yapping dog at night in south east Asia. The price of paradise is often a lack of sleep.
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I’ve swapped hundreds of stories and had tens of thousands of laughs. But I’ll only confess to one tear. A perfect day in Bonn finished with a free concert. Massenet’s wrenching violin piece Meditation was followed by the pleading sorrow of Puccini’s Vissi D’Arte from Tosca. It was incredibly touching and out of nowhere a single tear rolled gently down my cheek.
I’ve seen the beauty of the natural world and the genius of man’s creativity.
I’ve met a gigolo and the most beautiful woman in the world; spent time with the headhunters, a nuclear physicist and a former CIA chief; come across people with almost literally nothing, and a couple of people whose wealth could probably be counted in tens of millions.
I’ve driven a train, been a Hindu for a day and witnessed unique, ancient rituals. I’ve been enchanted by great company, loved the solitude of lone travelling and at other times felt a touch of loneliness.
But I’ve never been far from the kindness and caring of wonderful people. The generosity of complete strangers has been incredibly uplifting throughout the past 12 months.
Just a couple of days ago I was walking with my backpack through intense heat and humidity in Malaysia. Unknown to me a young girl saw me from her home and sent her aunt out after me in the car to offer me a ride. Incredibly kind and so typical of the help I’ve received. The same applies to old friends and new, family and relations. I am sincerely grateful. It’s the people who made it a year like no other.
And now it’s time to go home.
But there is just one tiny, little problem. The last thing I did before starting my travels was to sell my house. Oh dear, time to add to the statistics. Does anybody have a bed for a couple of nights?

Cheers to each and every one of you,
Arthur

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Pongo the jungle man and Borneo wildlife photos

Coming face to face with Pongo, now that was something. He’s family, so I knew a bit about him. But we’d never actually met before.
When I saw him for the first time I could see the resemblance straight away. The facial expressions and the way he stands. But we’ve grown apart, like many modern families, I suppose. In fact it’s been fourteen million years since we had a common ancestor. But Pongo Pygmaeus (his formal name) better known to you and I as orangutan, shares 97% of human DNA. And it shows.
The great ape is only found in Sumatra or here in Borneo. But they are seriously endangered. It’s estimated just over 40,000 still remain on the island. Huge scale logging (legal and illegal) is destroying their habitat. The conversion of huge tracts of forest to palm oil plantations has also devastated their traditional areas. It’s appalling to witness the pace of rainforest destruction.
I did see a few orangutans in the wild but to be honest the best place to watch them is at either Semmengoh or Sepilok rehabilitation centres. Both rescue orphaned orangutans with the aim of releasing them back into the forest. They are both very successful.
After release, some Orangutans turn up at the centres for fruit, which is provided twice a day. The food is deliberately monotonous so as to encourage them to stay away and find it for themselves in the forests.
Borneo teems with amazing wildlife, some of which is found nowhere else on earth, so enough of the words, I hope you enjoy the photos. (Note: Big thanks to Isabel Rybuschka and Simon Staiger for the picture of the very rare and elusive pygmy elephant – I left my camera on charge in the room. Idiot).

CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO BEGIN FULL SCREEN SLIDE SHOW

Categories: Malaysia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Borneo – hunting and sleeping with the headhunters

The still, silent, dead of night, deep in the Borneo jungle. The full moon casts a silvery, dreamlike trance over the primal rainforest.
Gently, two paddles sink into the inky water, the surface breaks and we glide soundlessly downstream.
The moonlight adds a sheen to the edges of the virgin forest but beyond the riverbank is impenetrable darkness. Only the rattling chirp of the cicadas and the mooted calls of owls taint the silence.
It is a canvas of calm and the night is achingly and hauntingly beautiful.
The silence is finally broken by a low murmur from behind me. Two beams of light flash to the bank on our right. There in the rays of death stands a mouse deer.
With a few rapid strokes we reach the riverbank. Two tribesmen race from the canoe. They scramble up the muddy rise. Their torch beams slash through the trees and undergrowth in a frantic search for their prey.
It is to no avail and one of the hunters gives up and returns empty handed to the boat.
As we wait we catch fleeting glimpses of torchlight off in the distance but silence has settled once more on the jungle. It seems the deer has escaped with its life.
But 15 minutes later the peace is shattered by the grave, echoing sound of gunshot.
A few minutes pass before Jangolin reappears at the riverbank. He carries a rifle in one hand and from the other dangles the bloody, still and lifeless mouse deer.
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Seventy years ago the Kayan were a feared headhunter tribe living in the remote upper Rajang river of Borneo. Nowadays they hunt only for food. Their lives depend upon it.
Lower down the river at Kapit, which is only accessible by boat, I discovered that many of the traditional Iban longhouses have gone. Most people now live in modernised concrete versions, often with electricity and TVs.
But in some of the older wooden longhouses the past still lurks, skulls of headhunting victims hang in baskets.
Belaga, which is mainly Kayan territory, is a further six hours by boat through the Pelagus rapids. The settlement is small and I soon meet Bruno. He has good English and agrees to be my guide for a couple of days.
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Early the next day he and I set off, we’re heading for a remote longhouse. It’s an arduous journey.
When we finally arrive the people are distant but not unfriendly and although dirt poor they’re generous. Smoked fish is soon brought out along with a bottle of tuak, Borneo’s notoriously strong rice wine. Bruno explains that today is a rest day so drinking will be heavier than normal.
The women mostly keep their distance. Some of the older ones have fully inked lower arms and long, drooping earlobes from days when this was considered fashionable. The practice is no longer en vogue and has died out.

Note the inked lower arms

Note the inked lower arm

A common area runs the length of the longhouse. Off it are small rooms for sleeping and cooking. Even in the daytime they are dark and dingy.
There’s neither electricity nor running water. Food is cooked over an open fire.
For lunch there’s a selection of meat the men have hunted. Wild boar, rich and quite sweet; mouse deer, which looks and tastes a little like pork; and ‘wild cat’, civet, I think. Its meat is gristly and I find it almost impossible to chew.
There’s also rice and tapioca. Everything they eat they either grow or catch themselves. Even the cigarettes they smoke are from their own tobacco.
After lunch it is time for a wash and bathe.
Grooming is taken seriously and the boy checks all the men's hair

Grooming is taken seriously and the boy checks all the men’s hair


A nearby stream is the communal bathroom. Similarly, the jungle is their toilet. But only in daylight. Bruno warns me the night can be dangerous so I should just stand on the longhouse verandah and do what I need to do over the side.
Late in the afternoon, after several bottles of tuak, we get in a boat and go fishing up river. A catfish is quickly caught and an impromptu barbecue is soon underway. But after some loud mutterings my guide tells me that we need to return to the longhouse as one of the men is not well. ‘A bad head’, he informs me. He means the man is completely drunk.
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The drinking continues into the night and I am a little wary when two homemade guns are produced in readiness for the hunt. However, drink or no drink the Kayan are experts. The mouse deer is taken with a single shot.
Dinner - it's subdued after a day on the tuak

Dinner – it’s subdued after a day on the tuak


On our return Bruno shows me our ‘bedroom’. There are no blankets, no pillows and, of course, no bed. The floor is where the Kayan sleep and we will be sharing with Jangolin and Malacca. There is very little space. This will be a snug fit.
I place my BlackWolf backpack under my head and put on an extra top for warmth.
Within moments Bruno is snoring grotesquely loudly. Next to me Malacca begins a whiney version of the same thing. I inwardly sigh and turn onto my side. It is, unsurprisingly, not comfortable.
Thirty minutes later Malacca, whose breath I can feel on my neck, suddenly throws a leg over me. Worse still it grips tightly around my own legs. I freeze. Is he asleep or is he amorous?
Many scenarios rush through my head. None of them end well.
I manage to wriggle away and convince myself he’s just in a drunken stupor.
Thirty long minutes later the leg comes snaking around me once more. Again I am hooked tight in his clutches. Oh hell, I think he might be having a frisky dream. I’m desperately hoping I’m not in it.
Through the endless hours of the night this scenario is repeated five times. On each occasion the embrace gets more vice-like. Sometimes I push him gently away, other times I give him a jab. I’m not sure how wise this is, his hunting knife is almost within reach.
I remain planted on my right side. The idea of turning over and coming face to face or cheek to cheek with Malacca is not comforting.
Finally, dawn arrives. I am first up.
Malanca chopping fish

Malacca chopping fish


Bruno and I set off back towards Belaga. The Kayan give us the mouse deer as a gift. We give them tuak.
Once on a logging trail we hitch rides in the rear of beaten up old utes. Huge logging trucks rumble past and we are coated in thick, gritty blankets of dust.
We’re crammed in tight between boxes and bags. The only thing moving is the dead mouse deer and it slides ever closer to me. For the next 90 minutes splashes of its congealed blood rub against my backpack. Australian customs will not be happy.
After a couple of hours we reach a road and I take my leave. I hitch a long ride back to the modern world. I’m hunting a hot shower, clean clothes, a wire brush to clean my bag and, most importantly, a bed that I will share with nobody.
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Categories: Malaysia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 14 Comments

Time for some Angkor rancour

Angkor Wat. One of the most iconic buildings in the world. Star of a billion bucket lists. The dictionary has been bled dry of superlatives in homage to its grandeur.
It’s almost a heresy not to join the hallelujah chorus of adoration for the biggest religious building in the world.
But let me try.
I might be in a minority of one but here’s some Angkor rancour.
I so wanted this to be a lifetime event, an Olympian moment. And I tried, I really did. But after a couple of hours I left with a heavy heart. My Angkor Wat experience was a major disappointment.
So what was the problem? Well, there wasn’t just one, there were many. In fact there were thousands of them. Angkor was heaving and bursting with tourists.
This is an icon best enjoyed at a slow, considered pace. Quiet moments are needed to take in the vastness of the whole; time to stop and pause is crucial to appreciate the intricacies of the friezes and stone carvings.
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But it was impossible. Tourists were here, there and everywhere. And before you say it, yes, I accept I was a part of the problem, one of thousands throttling the place.
I never climbed the steps to its upper levels, the queue to get up snaked and twisted forever.
It was the same at nearby Bakheng Hill, a great place for an Angkor sunset. Unfortunately a tidal wave of humanity was making the short trek up. For some unfathomable reason I joined them, knowing in my heart of hearts that it was futile. At the top is a wooden staircase leading to the huge viewing platform. The queue was hundreds long and wasn’t moving.
I came, I saw, I conceded. Back down I went.

But this is a place of second chances. Although Angkor Wat gets top billing there are many other temples. Some are truly mesmerizing.
Ta Prohm is one such case. Like many temples here it was ignored for centuries and taken over by the jungle. Its ruination has left a stupefying spectacle.
Many are here solely because of the power of Hollywood. A scene from the Lara Croft: Tomb Raiders movie was shot At Ta Prohm. It features Angelina Jolie at the entrance of a tomb straddled by the roots of a giant tree. I haven’t seen the film but I know the scene. Here’s the entrance in all it’s glory.
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It is spectacular but whoever said the camera never lies is kidding themselves. The camera often tells monster porkies. The photo gives an impression that I had the place all to myself. That’s a long way from the truth.
And that’s what we can be guilty of with our travel photos. We sometimes beautify and idealize a moment which in reality can be a lot less than perfect.
Look at the scrum I had to wade through to get my close up shot. I had a few precious seconds to take my photo before being jostled and nudged out-of-the-way. Like Angkor Wat it was at bursting point.

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Before you slump into depression and scratch it off your wish list, there is some good news.
I went back for a second day (at least a couple are needed here) and visited more temples. They were much quieter and the experience was so much better. Many are magnificent. This, in no small part, is due to the impact the jungle had on them as they lay neglected for centuries.
It’s a shame that so many have fallen into disrepair but the creep of Mother Nature has given them an otherworldly quality. Decay and neglect have left something a little magical.
If you are thinking of going I highly recommend it. Just think of the temples as a collection rather than simply Angkor Wat. I don’t usually give travel tips but if you are planning to visit here’s a couple of thoughts. Avoid peak season (November to March) if you can, although other months can get very hot and wet. Check the local climate charts.
If you do go in the busy months, to really appreciate Angkor Wat get there early. It opens at 5am. I didn’t do it, I’m not sure why.
Visit at least half a dozen temples, the variety is breathtaking. Again, try early morning or late afternoon when most tourists head to Angkor Wat for sunset. Resist its lure and you can have the other temples to yourself.
I’m now writing this in Borneo (apologies for being a few weeks behind). A couple of days ago I met Josiane and Michel Guitard from France. They were at Angkor at almost exactly the same time in 2013 and happily told me they saw no crowds anywhere! Perhaps pot luck is all you need.
Anyway, to whet your appetite here’s some of the amazing sights that await you in the other Temples of Angkor.

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The faces of Angkor Thom

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Categories: Cambodia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 8 Comments

My Favourite Sunset Photos

I thought it was about time to give you a break from my words….four cheers all round?

Since I’ve been travelling I’ve seen some amazing sunsets, so I decided to share a few. Photography isn’t necessarily my strength and I only use a point and shoot camera. However, I hope you enjoy.

Just click on any of the thumbnail pictures and the gallery will start in a larger size. Keep clicking to the right to move through.

(Note: If you’re using an Ipad you might find getting the pictures full size can be a little temperamental but it usually works after a few taps)

Cheers
Arthur

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Myanmar’s Golden Rock……..and roll

We are being tossed around in a tempest. Rag dolls in a storm. Fifty pilgrims and myself clinging on for dear life. I look at the young boy next to me, his head is bowed low. My heart goes out to him, ‘Hang on, be strong, this will soon be over. Just don’t throw up.’
As if he hears my thoughts he flicks his head up and there on his face is a smile. He’s fine.
I, on the other hand, am most definitely not. My stomach is churning and the colour in my cheeks is draining. My discomfort levels are off the charts and my self-pity is registering even higher.
Just at that point we are thrown violently to our left, momentarily up in the air and then seconds later whipped back to the right. For the umpteenth time in 20 minutes I wonder what the hell am I doing here. The answer gives me no comfort. I’m on my way to look at a rock!
Of course it’s a little grander than that. This rock is special.
The Golden Rock, or Kyaiktiyo Pagoda as it’s properly known, is one of Myanmar’s most sacred sites, an absolute must for Buddhist pilgrims. It is a small pagoda built on a colossal rock perched at a crazily precarious angle on a solid granite cliff. A lock of Buddha’s hair is said to be all that holds it in place.
Right now the only thing holding my breakfast in place is the worry of projectile vomiting over half a dozen pilgrims sat tightly around me.
The Golden Rock sits atop a high, steep hill. There are two ways up. Walking is estimated to take five hours, the other option 45 minutes. I choose the path of least resistance, which is a fancy way of saying I took the easy way out. Or so I thought.
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The ‘bus station’ is overflowing with pilgrims. ‘Bus’ is of course a misnomer. What they’re all clamouring to board are small trucks. I join them and climb half a dozen steps and take my place on one of half a dozen benches. I am in the centre and packed in tighter than a winter Olympian’s lunchbox.
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I expect a gentle ascent. It doesn’t happen. The truck races up the rough mountain track. It twists and turns at breakneck speed. Mostly we head uphill but now and then we plunge perilously fast downhill. Sat in the middle of the truck I can’t see what’s coming.
After 45 minutes and at the point of reacquainting myself with my breakfast we arrive.
The rock is mesmerizing. It is about 7.6 metres tall (25ft). The pagoda on top of it is a similar height. Over the years they’ve been decorated in gold leaf and pilgrims are constantly adding more and more layers. Monks and men pray at the rock face, women aren’t allowed across the gantry and they view it from several nearby platforms.
How the rock defies gravity and stays where it does is beyond me. The tiniest sliver sits at a precarious angle on the cliff face. It has an overhang of half of its length.
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The rock is said to have come from the bottom of the ocean through the combination of a hermit, a king and a serpent dragon princess.
The boat used to transport it turned to stone and is situated 300 metres away – it too is revered.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands of people at the summit. Pilgrims outnumber tourists by a huge majority. Many make the trip every year. The elderly are carried in litters, there are no roads on the mountain top.
There are, however, a couple of hotels and dozens of restaurants and shops. More to my liking are some fabulous walks and views.
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It is all blissfully distracting from what lies ahead, the return journey down the mountain. Catastrophe awaits as I have now discovered my appetite and am weighed down by a heavy Myanmar lunch. Incidentally, the country is undisputedly bottom of the league for food in South East Asia. Everything is saturated in oil and flavour is even less in evidence than democracy.
Fortunately, I have heard that foreigners can pay $3US to ride in the truck’s cab. An equal measure of bargaining and begging doesn’t do the trick. The cab is full I am told ad nauseum…..which of course is where this journey could soon be heading.
Luckily I have been in the region long enough to understand that No Means Absolutely No…..until a bribe is paid. I hand the driver an extra dollar and am welcomed into the truck’s VIP area, along with seven Singaporeans. Potentially a world record for a small truck cab.
In the tiny space arms and legs are flailing around but I concentrate on the road ahead and suck on some delicious sweets. My lunch stays comfortably where it belongs.
If you’re planning to do the Golden Rock and roll pay a bribe, travel first class and don’t forget Sugar.

Categories: Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

The world’s weirdest capital?

Three thirty pm. Sixty minutes to rush hour. In major cities around the world gridlock time would be fast approaching. In Myanmar’s capital things are……. a little different.
I stand at the edge of a monster highway, glance to my left, saunter out to the third lane and casually sit down.
Death would be certain in most cities. Here, the biggest risk is scorch marks on my arse from the baking hot road surface.
After sixty traffic-free seconds I get up and wander across seven more lanes to the central reservation. I poke my head through the bushes and see the same exact thing on the other side……nothing.
I exaggerate, but only a little. For a mile or so I can see five or six motorbikes. And that’s all. Twenty lanes of emptiness. And this in the very heart of the capital city.
But to be honest this place doesn’t have a heart. And it has absolutely no soul either. In fact, there’s not much that it does have. There are very few people, a tiny sprinkling of shops, no tourists nor taxis. The only way to get around is to pay for a ride on the back of a motorbike.

Hotel zone - full of new buildings, empty of tourists

Hotel zone – full of new buildings, empty of tourists

Oddly, it’s not short of hotels. There are lots of them, all shiny and new. Each and every one situated in the dedicated hotel zone. That’s how it works here. Everything in its own area. There’s a commercial zone (although it’s woefully short of businesses and offices), a ministries zone, a military zone and a zone where the generals live. Civilians, effectively government workers, live in the residential zone. The rooves of their apartment blocks are colour coordinated depending on which ministry employs them.
The zones are spread over a huge area, nothing is within walking distance. They’re linked by excellent roads, the only decent ones in the country. They intersect every few miles and at each stands an imposing security box and armed policemen. Nobody moves around here without being noticed. But that’s no big deal, there’s nobody here to notice.
One place I personally stood out was in the supermarket. It was incredibly well stocked by Myanmar standards but customers were scarce. I had my own personal shopper – a security man followed me through every inch of the store. He wasn’t even embarrassed as I twice deliberately double-backed after just turning into a new aisle. As we side-stepped around each other he would wait two seconds, turn around and resume his shadowing.

At this rate the roads will never wear out

At this rate the roads will never wear out

The city didn’t even exist until 2005. Yangon, or Rangoon as the British called it, was the country’s capital. But after years of secrecy the people woke one day to an announcement that a new capital city had been built. It’s called Nay Pi Taw, which translates grandiosely as Royal Capital. Situated half way between Yangon and Mandalay it cost an estimated four BILLION dollars to construct. In such a dirt poor country this money would have transformed the country’s desperate health, education and transport infrastructure.
The exact reasons the generals built the new city are unknown. But rumours are rife, just take your pick. It’s easier to defend against foreign invasion; it’s designed to prevent a popular uprising; an astrologer told the generals it would be the smart thing to do.
Whichever, it’s clear Nay Pi Taw is an act of self-love and self-preservation on an epic scale. A monument to the madness of military men who became rich and paranoid on the broken backs of their countrymen.
After decades of abusive control reform is slowly being introduced, elections are due next year. If the people ever truly wrest power from the military this will be a safe haven for the men in uniform. It is in essence their folly of fear.

Uppatasanti Pagoda - utterly deserted by tourists

Uppatasanti Pagoda – utterly deserted by tourists

Nay Pi Taw does have two or three tourist sites – that’s an average of about one attraction for every tourist in town. There’s a zoo and safari park, I went to neither.
The Uppatasanti Pagoda is the pick of the tourism spots. It dominates the skylines for miles. It is just 30 centimetres shorter than Shwedagon, Yangon’s sacred and world-renowned Buddhist monument, on which it’s modelled. Lifts and staircases are needed to reach the hollowed out entrance. It is immense. Amazingly it was said to have been personally paid for by Than Shwe, the country’s former military dictator. Quite how he could have afforded it on the pay of a mere, humble general,I really don’t know…….
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In December the city did have a moment in the international spotlight when it hosted the South East Asian games. New stadia and sports halls were built, foreign media and tourists came to town.
However, the word is the hotels are now back to empty, the streets deserted and the Uppatasanti pagoda is once again quiet.

The perfect symbol for the capital - white elephant

The perfect symbol for the capital – white elephant

Across the road from the complex is another ‘tourist attraction’. Several white elephants are brought out each day to amuse a handful of spectators. In Myanmar they are considered lucky and a sign of justice and power. When the British were here they came up with an alternative definition of a white elephant – something that is excessively expensive in proportion to its usefulness. That’s as close to an accurate definition of Nay Pi Taw as you can get.

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Merry Christmas and a slice of Xmas quirky

Season’s greetings from Khao Lak, Thailand.
A blog isn’t very personal, I’m afraid, but it’s the best way for me to send out my compliments of the season. And it’s from the heart.
I wish family, relations, friends, old and new, a very Merry Christmas and a new year full of happiness, health, fun and inner peace. I hope 2014 shines brightly on you and your loved ones.

I’ve received a huge amount of kindness in my eight and a half months travelling so this is also a Christmas thank you card.
If you’ve given me a bed, or a meal, or shared a ride or swapped a story, my sincere thanks to you. Whether you’ve commented on the blog or simply just read any posts I appreciate it.

A lot of pictures and incidents never make it into the stories I write so in the spirit of Christmas fun here’s a few little quirky moments that I hope bring a smile to your face.

SUNBATHING ON THE BEACH ALBANIA
Life in Albania can be a little tough. So when the chance for a spot of relaxation comes up nothing gets in the way. I watched the lady tanning herself just to the right of the digger. She never raised an eyebrow.
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MOUSE ON THE RUNS
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In the dead of night on the Indonesian island of Sumba I was woken by a loud crash. The noise came from the bathroom, an indoor outdoor affair.
I went to have a look and found the culprit, a mouse. I took him outside and headed back to clean up. No damage but the mouse had eaten into a packet of medicine. This was a mouse with a serious problem. He’d eaten through three capsules of diarrhoea relief tablets!

THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (JUST AVOIDED)
Many shrines, pagodas and temples have names. There’s usually a religious or spiritual element to them. One pagoda in Bagan stood out from the rest. I’m afraid I don’t know the story behind it. Did the world almost come to a catastrophic end in Myanmar and I never knew about it?
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HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR EGGS?
In the remote Indonesian island of Sumba my hotel served up the world’s toughest chicken for lunch. The menu was almost as bad, totally indecipherable and only in Indonesian. Nobody spoke English and there were no other restaurants.
However, I worked out they had a vegetarian section. So in the evening for dinner I randomly chose four options, confident one or two would be fine.
First course – two fried eggs. Not what I had in mind but fair enough. Second course – soft-boiled egg. Oh dear, quite a lot of egg. Still, I’m confident in the third course. It duly arrives – an omelette. Fourth course – I never found out, I left. Probably my loss, I’m sure they did a lovely soufflé.

MONKEYING AROUND WITH PUPPIES
They start their novice monks very early in Myanmar. At such a young age the idea of religion and spirituality can come a long way behind the fun of playing with a puppy.
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THE HANDY SKILLS OF A LANDLADY
Travelling with a backpack? Take my advice and get a small lock and two keys. Even better advice, don’t put the two keys in the same place. You lose one you lose both.
I turned up at my lodgings at Kotor, Montenegro with neither key. I explained to my landlady. She went into her kitchen and in a few seconds turned up with a hacksaw and her teenage son. Within minutes they had cut through the lock.
Great…..but I chose not to ask how she became such an expert.
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ONLINE SHOPPING IN YANGON
Done any of your Christmas shopping online this year? Well before the advent of the internet Yangon pioneered online shopping…..with a difference.
Many old apartment blocks don’t have lifts. For residents and the delivery people this meant exhausting inconvenience. The answer? Dangle ropes with hooks, bags or clips attached down the side of the building. Payment is in the bags and I’m told money is never stolen. All manner of goods or postal packages are then hooked or clipped on.
But there is no escaping one of life’s tyrannies…..junk mail is often attached.
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It’s not quite what I was looking for but Christmas trees are a little rare around here. So this picture from Bagan with a tree shaped monument will have to do.
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU ALL
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Categories: Quirky, Uncategorized | Tags: , | 15 Comments

DRIVING THE CIRCULAR TRAIN IN YANGON

CHRISTMAS PROLOGUE

When I was a little boy my sister and I would write letters to Santa Claus. They were really just lists of the sackful of toys and presents we feverishly hoped for. A week or so before Christmas Day we’d send them up the chimney to ride a hot air trail all the way to the North Pole.
Father Christmas never failed us.
Some years I had special requests for Santa. These were secrets between the two of us and were never written down
They were about much more than mere toys. These were dreams.
For a couple of years or so I silently pleaded with Santa to fix it so I could drive a train
It didn’t happen.
The closest I got was when the real life Santa, my dad, a railway man, got me on to the footplate of a steam engine as it stood at the station. It was good enough.
As I grew up I also grew out of my secret conversations with the man in the bright red tunic. But now and again, in an idle moment, the wishes still return and fill a quiet daydream.
And then a few weeks ago Father Christmas showed up. Was he a little early this year or was he about 45 years late? I’m not quite sure. Either way it’s not important. All that matters is that the magical man from the North Pole finally made a little boy’s silent wish come true.

The following blog is dedicated to the memory of my dad, the real life Santa, who passed away fifteen years ago today. He gave me a passion for life……and trains.

DRIVING A TRAIN IN MYANMAR

With a sharp tug on the wheel and an easing of the brakes the driver sends the train inching away from the station. Slowly, with concentrated deliberation, he takes the engine up through the gears. First, second, third and fourth all quickly gone with short clicks of the wheel.
He has one eye on the gauges, pressure and revs are both fine. The other eye intently surveys the track ahead.
The engine strains a little. Its days of top speed are long gone. It’s old but it’s still a sturdy and reliable workhorse.
Behind, it pulls seven carriages with 400 or so passengers. They hear excited and repeated bursts from the horn, otherwise they are blissfully ignorant of what’s going on up front. They’re unaware that a boyhood dream is being realized. They don’t know that I am DRIVING THE TRAIN.
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Lifelong dreams, if they’re met at all, rarely come cost-free. Mine certainly didn’t. But I have to say, it was probably the best one dollar I ever spent.
That’s the fee foreigners pay for riding the Circular Train around Yangon, formerly Rangoon. It doesn’t feature in the world’s great railway journeys but it’s a wonderful ringside seat into the city, its rhythms and the people who call it home.

The British built the railway in the 1950s. It does a full circle around the sprawling city and its surrounds. The journey is almost 46 kilometres and the train stops at 39 stations.

Foreigners are usually directed to the rear carriage – quite often a cut above the others. Hard plastic or wooden benches run down either side. Outside the city is there for all to see. Some of it is grim, slums hustle in close to the line.
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People live right on the trackside. They even put their washing out to dry between the rails.
But the negatives are completely overshadowed by the positives.
After 20 minutes I left my carriage and headed for the other compartments where the locals sit and stand.
I’m welcomed with huge smiles. People make room for me or come over to try some English. Young boys follow me as I get off and on at different stations to move further up the train. Girls giggle, old ladies smile. This is fun. This is Myanmar.
The circular train is the cheapest away around the city for the people. They use it for travel, transport, trading, business and a whole lot more.
On board people carry furniture, huge sacks of vegetables, electrical equipment, bundles of brushes, live chickens. When it comes to cargo nothing is off-limits.
People get off and on with huge trays of food to sell. Amazingly, there is even a passenger cooking in the middle of one compartment.
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In another, without a word exchanged, the man next to me puts his hand on my leg. After a moment he starts stroking it. Is this a local custom on the circular train? I’m a little concerned.
When he moves to my thigh I’m startled and on the point of violent self-defence. But the looks of people in the carriage suggest no ill intent. I finally work out he is a masseur and this is where he works. This is his salon.
I pay him a dollar and move on.
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In every carriage it’s the same, a big welcome and more surprises. Finally I run out of compartments and on the spur of the moment make a bold decision.
At the next stop I jump off and run alongside the engine. I shout at the somewhat stunned engineer and as the train begins to move he grasps I want to come on board. He makes frantic ‘hurry, hurry’ gestures as I try to haul myself up the huge gaps between the steps. As the train gathers speed I manage to jump on. The rest of the crew is equally amazed at the foreigner in their midst but they make me instantly at home.
After 20 minutes of close study I go for broke on my boyhood dream. I ask in exaggerated sign language if I can drive. I sense we’re in unchartered waters. There is a look of doubt on the driver’s face. But then he stands up and waves me into his seat. A few quick lessons later I find myself in control of a railway engine.
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Like a naughty schoolboy I fulfill another dream and flog the horn to death. The driver and his men smile widely.
Top speed is pretty relaxed, the track isn’t up to breakneck. Ahead of me it buckles and bends alarmingly.
As a station approaches the driver gives me more voice and sign commands. I manage to slow us to a crawl. The people lining the track and the platform suddenly notice the new driver. All my Christmases and all of theirs seem to have come at once and there’s delirium inside and outside the cab. Wisely they scatter off the rails ahead.
With the driver gripping my hand on the air brakes we come to a stop. I’m quickly prepped on the starting procedure and seconds later I inch the train slowly out and up through the gears.
I drive the engine to the next station and exhausted by exhilaration make my grateful leave of the driver’s seat.
My dream has moved from fiction to fact and I spend the rest of the ride in a Burmese daze.
The little boy inside of me contentedly relinquishes a dream. And on the gentle breeze I’m sure I catch the sound of laughter from a dearly missed old railwayman.

Categories: Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments

The sound of silence in mystic Bagan

Silence, solitude and sunset. A rare and elusive alchemy. In the wonderous and mystical setting of ancient Bagan, they form a soothing balm for the soul.
The world’s largest collection of stupas and pagodas sprinkle the skyline below and beyond me. Tiny honeycombs and vast temples stand side by side and take their silent and timeless place.
All around the light is being gently smothered by the slow, smooth sinking of the sun. Colours change from moment to moment and for as far as the eye can see and the ear can hear stillness and silence reign.
It is a time and a place to feel a deep calm and peace. A moment to glimpse deep within yourself.
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And then I hear them.
Moments later I see them. From nowhere a coach has arrived, disgorged its tourists and they’re now rampaging towards me.
My perfect peace is shattered as they huff and puff into the temple. Their guide leads them through the darkness and up the narrow stone staircase. Within seconds a tidal wave of tourism smashes through my wall of solitude. They are a mass of loud, excited chatter, whirling cameras, coughs and splutters. “It’s amazing,” they scream to themselves and each other. “Stunning.” “Wonderful”.
Actually, for me, it’s close to heartbreaking. I cannot stop here knowing what a rare and elusive moment has been lost. I have just 25 minutes or so until the sun finally settles. But this is a place that offers choices.
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Bagan in central Burma (now Myanmar) is one of the world’s great architectural sites. A treasure trove of around 2,200 monuments spread over 26 square miles. They stand, lean and in many cases decay, on a vast, dry plain framed by a bend in the fabled Irrawaddy River.
Serious building work began in the eleventh century. It continued for 250 years by when 11,000 stupas and temples had been constructed. All part of the Buddhist belief that such devotion on earth builds credit for what follows.
But the marauding hordes of Kubla Khan’s army wrought havoc in the area and thousands were obliterated. Earthquakes great and small have continued the destruction ever since.
Today Bagan is awe-inspiring, eight centuries ago it would have been beyond words.
A few days are needed to tour the sites. Many people go by horse and trap, plenty more cycle. Others, like me go on electro bikes. Stately but a little faster, so more ground can be covered.
I spent three days armed with a vague map of the “highlights”. There are some vast and hugely impressive structures that tower up to the sky.
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But often it is the small, intimate temples that surprise. There is always a buddha inside but sometimes there are fabulous frescos and carvings. Tourists always visit the big pagodas but with so many monuments to choose from the smaller sites are mostly your very own to explore.
Now, I am in a race against time. I set off, desperate to rediscover peace and quiet, to watch the sun set in silence. I pass many small stupas but they are single storey. Height is crucial to really appreciate Bagan’s vast scope.
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I’m getting a little desperate as the light deserts me……and then I spy it. A large pagoda several storeys high, surrounded by fields and with access marred by overgrown scrub. It’s enough to deter most people. The electro bike is buffeted by the hard, dried clay surface. It makes discouraging noises but gets me through.
The temple’s interior is a still, murky darkness. I search for steps and after one and a half full ciruits my torch illuminates the entrance of a stone staircase. It’s raised a few feet above the ground. I make the narrow climb under a low ceiling and two storeys later I emerge into the fading light.
A vast panorama of stupas and temples stretches for as far as I can see. And minutes later, when the sun’s rays leave the day behind, I sit alone. Just me, the beauty of planet earth and a warm, comforting blanket of silence.

The sight and sound of silence - sunset in Bagan

The sight and sound of silence – sunset in Bagan

Categories: Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 22 Comments

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