Birthday in Bagan

It’s official. I’m old. With the passing of my thirty fourth birthday, I have the looming spectre of hitting thirty five, and no longer being able to classify myself as “early thirties”.

Still, you know, this getting old lark isn’t all bad. This year, for example, I celebrated my birthday (many thanks for all the kind wishes via facebook by the way – will get round to replying to you all, honest guv’nor) in Bagan, the famed “Plain of the Thousand Temples” in northern Myanmar. (No, I didn’t count them, but yes there were certainly lots of temples; must have been at least a few hundred even if the thousands bit is maybe on the optimistic side.)

And rather nice it was too. The temples at Bagan are old and beautiful, but quite different from a number of the other temples we’ve seen en-route (of which there have been a few!!), mainly due to the sheer number of them. There’s just too many to even try to look around in any detail, and in any event, to do so would sort of miss the point – the spectacle here is in the multitudes of vaguely gothicky styled temples fading away over the plains, particularly spectacular in the soft light of early mornings and late afternoons. The guidebook even tells you not to bother sightseeing in the main part of the day, when it’s just too hot to keep one’s sense of humour. Plus which, we had splurged and booked ourselves onto a sunrise balloon ride over the temples (we’ll post separately on this but it was AWESOME!!), so we knew that we’d get to see the vast majority of the temples, if only from the air.

Result? The perfect excuse for a perfect day. Get up, leisurely breakfast, then spend a couple of hours strolling round some of the closer temples to our (extremely nice – yep, this is where the flashpacking hit) hotel. We actually really enjoyed being able to go into a few of the temples (which often have fairly spectacular murals inside, or amazing Buddha statues) and get a sense as to what they’re all about, but after a few hours we were ready to retire poolside. A happy few hours drinking cocktails, then my relaxation was rudely interrupted by the need to pootle off to get a lovely massage. Add a horse and cart trip to see the sunset from the roof of one of the temples and a lovely dinner in the hotel, and you’ve got the makings of a really not half bad day. If only I’d been able to teleport a few dozen friends and family to join us in the festivities, it would have been absolutely perfect!

I’ve no idea where we’ll be this time next year, which is a little scary but rather exciting too. Still, something tells me that I’ll probably be celebrating the next birthday somewhere rather closer to home!

Favourite Places

Well, everyone asks. In fact, it is just about the only thing that many people ask – what was your favourite of all the many places you have seen on your trip around the world?

Well, we have a few. Depending on who is asking, we sometimes give different places so we can add some healthy variety to the tall tales we tell. In truth though, it will be hard to beat the side of the gas crater in Darvaza where Lucy agreed to marry me.

It’s not my best video, or my best edit (or indeed my best Prodigy remix), but it gives half an idea of the grandeur of the place. The government is drilling for gas in the region to try to extinguish the crater as they think that an industrial accident still burning after 50 years is bad for the image of modern, thrusting Turkmenistan. Life is short – go while you still can.

Sweet Cravings

This is going to be a little hard to explain, so please bear with me.

Our plan for the trip included a certain amount of “flashpacking”. Loosely defined, this involves slumming it for most of the trip – sleeping on floors, taking overnight buses, finding interesting backpacker haunts in the high mountains and on white sand beaches, spending next to nothing in awe-inspiring and remote places. The flash part is then taking the money we have saved as a result and checking into the occasional lovely hotel – we aren’t students any more after all, and there are some beautiful hotels in the world where we hoped to benefit from cheap third world prices. Our plan was to check in, unpack the collared shirts and high heels, hand our filthy backpacks in toto to the laundry, hop in the shower and drink shockingly cheap cocktails until everything comes back clean and we can head back into the wilderness. And it hasn’t really worked.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, our “slumming it” turned out to be shockingly expensive: beer might be cheap in parts of the world, but petrol isn’t (OK, so it’s free in Turkmenistan, but that’s another story). A large part of our budget has been taken up by internal flights in countries where there is no other option. Cars and buses to take us to the out-of-the-way places on our itinerary don’t come particularly cheap either. And Papua New Guinea showed us that even $180 hotel rooms come complete with filthy sheets and cockroaches. Secondly, hoteliers are no fools, and a beer in an international standard hotel costs pretty much the same all around the world no matter what the base price of the beer is in that country. Hotel laundries worldwide play the same game: I have written about this before, but hotel prices for washing clothes make me angry and I refuse to pay them on point of principle, in Vanuatu as well as in Vegas. As a result, we have done some flashy things (hopefully not unforgiveably so) but we haven’t ever checked into a nice holiday resort and lapped up luxury for a few days.

So the conversation (when it happened) didn’t take either of us by surprise. We were sleeping on (yet another) floor, this time on a two day trek through local villages to Inle Lake in Myanmar. The trek was nice, but nothing extraordinary, and we both decided that (i) we are just too old to sleep on floors anymore and (ii) we have perhaps had just a little too much of it on this journey. We will always make exceptions for exceptional things – take us to Rwanda to see gorillas, for example, and we’ll happily sleep wedged in the fork of a tree if we have to – but as a way of life, we would like a comfortable bed and our own bathroom, please.

So yes, for the next few weeks at least, screw the honorable ruggedness. I’d like a Mai Tai and a chilled bottle of water please – you’ll find us by the pool.

Perfectly nice accommodation, although the see-through walls, the lack of bedding and the smoky fire under the floor could perhaps be improved on

Perfectly nice accommodation, although the see-through walls, the lack of bedding and the smoky fire under the floor could perhaps be improved on

Somewhat better accommodation – although our private balcony over the lake was perhaps a little shady, and it was a long walk to the bar(!)

Somewhat better accommodation – although our private balcony over the lake was perhaps a little shady, and it was a long walk to the bar(!)

James & Lucy Turn For Home

A slightly out of sequence blog post, seeing as how this happened yesterday, and we normally run a week or more behind. The timing is relevant, however…

The last of the elephants disappeared up the hill in the bright sunshine, dragging a one-ton teak log behind it on long rusty chains. We had been up since before dawn, waking up in a forest rangers’ hut before heading out into the jungle to track down the elephants which had been feeding overnight. There is another blog post coming on the teak logging camp; the relevance of the moment I describe is that logging with elephants is our last must-do in Myanmar, and therefore the end of this activity is the moment that we turn for home. We have been on the road for nearly seven months – the next formal stop on the itinerary is a cruise in Antarctica, but before that we have ten days at home with family for Christmas. Home. Family. Christmas.

To say we are looking forward to it is an understatement. We are loving our travels, but there is something strong to be said for knowing where the light switches are. So we are heading home, even if only for a few days before we fly off again. Our trip’s furthest point from home in terms of absolute remoteness was halfway up a volcano on a remote island in Vanuatu. Myanmar, on the other hand, is relatively well connected so all we need to do to get home is:

  • Back of a truck to Taungoo (mattresses laid out in the open air – sunbathing and snoozing most of the way)
  • Back of a motorbike at dawn to the bus station (actually, the back of two motorbikes, but who’s counting?)
  • Bus to Yangon (stopping for dinner in the best restaurant in Myanmar, obviously)
  • Short flight to Bangkok (picking up various items of tailoring and a cocktail or two on the way)
  • Slightly longer flight to Hong Kong (and an evening with our friends Kean and Nyree in their new apartment)
  • 16 hours of heavy drinking in new pyjamas courtesy of Cathay Pacific on the way to London
  • Lucy is then home (for a long-delayed engagement party with the family – hooray!)
  • For me, there is then a cross channel trip on Eurostar, a taxi across Paris, a further French train ride and 45 minutes in the back of my parents’ car to go.

So, seven full days of travel. It says something about the slightly schizophrenic nature of our trip that getting home includes both riding on the back of a tiny motorbike wearing 20lbs of rucksack and seat 1A on a Cathay 747. We wouldn’t have it any other way!

From Elephants…

From Elephants…

… to Home

… to Home


Mandalay? Meh

There should be a word specifically to describe those far-flung destinations which sound utterly, hair-raisingly epic, but in reality entirely fail to live up to expectation. Timbuktu, apparently is such a one (not much there and it’s pretty rough). Samarkand came pretty close, before finally scraping through (on points) due to its numerous and fabulous architectural sites (which slightly outnumber the numerous and hideous Soviet concrete monstrosities around town). For James and I, Mandalay is the newest addition to this sought after category. We’ll name it the “meh” category, which will be obvious to the Americans – for any Brits out there, “meh” is to an American what “bouff” is to a Frenchman. Utterly, depressingly unworth any vocalization of an opinion.

I mean, Mandalay sounds all romantic, doesn’t it? Visions of Singapore slings at sunset (pith helmets compulsory), the sun on the lazily winding Ayerwaddy river, friendly natives smiling as they walk by balancing bananas on their heads. It SHOULD be colonial Asia at its very best.

What it is, however, is concrete. Lots and lots of it – admittedly made into some reasonably modern and attractive buildings compared with Chinese standards, but basically reminiscent of a suburb in Nowheresville, IforgetitState. The reason most people come here is to visit some extremely scenic villages nearby which have temples ago-go and you can go round by horse and cart for added authenticity. Unfortunately, the pollution in Mandalay is so bad that James (who you may remember had a bit of a cold post our latest floor sleeping experience), had his first bad bout of asthma in the eight years we’ve been together and needed a day in bed to recover.

That being said, we did find some nice bits and bobs; we had a great trishaw ride round town, to a really lovely monastery where a jolly nice monk showed us around whilst explaining his cunning plan to learn English, become an entrepreneur and get rich (and he was a proper monk too, been there 7 or 8 years or so. What’s the Buddhist world coming to?!). Then we went to see the obligatory Mahamani Buddha. Yet another entirely misshapen golden blob caused by enthusiastic application of gold leaf – meh. Then we had some rather fine sundowners on the roof of a far more expensive hotel than ours, overlooking the Ayerwaddy. So all in all, really not too horrific an experience.

But still, any city that makes James ill has to expect my wrath. Mandalay, we were glad to leave you. Your have been officially consigned to the “meh”-heap.

Burmese Days

[* Or Myanmar-ese Days for those who don’t wish to be accused of lingering colonialism….]

We’ve been on the road now for over 6 months and, I’ve got to confess, we’re getting a bit tired.  Still LOVING the travelling gig, but every now and again we do sort of start to wish that a giant magic fairy would appear and create our next few weeks itinerary for us.  Preferably an itinerary involving lots of uber-luxe hotels for ridiculously cheap prices, plenty of adventure and a large dollop of cool factor thrown in for good measure.  And most definitively, no sleeping on floors.

As it is, however, I am that fairy.  And this fairy willed pretty strongly coming into Burma that we were due for a bit more of a relaxed time than we’ve chosen to take on most of our travels.  Some high living, fine dining, and maybe even throw in a cocktail or two (I blame the influence of my Mum and Dad, and all those gin and tonics we had in Cambodia.  Medicinal don’cha know).  And definitively no sleeping on floors.  All this to be achieved, however, with no dialing down of the patented James & Lucy adventure-o-meter.

I’m a bad fairy.

Day one had us in perfectly civilised fashion gawking at the Shwedegon Paya, the most famous religious monument in Burma.  And mighty fine it was too, big and gold and gleaming, although frankly less gold and gleaming than somehow I’d envisaged (though James mocks me for this statement, with some fairness given the fairly high levels of goldness and gleamingness on display.  But the damn thing is entirely gold leafed or plated, and I just thought that would make it more densely gold than it was.  My bad).  We’d show you photos but we’d left the SD card in the laptop… oops. Day two had us in a little town up near Inle Lake, cosied up watching Skyfall on Burmese DVD.  So far, so good.

Day three we started our 2 day hike up to Inle Lake.  The hike itself was a nice pretty hike, but this is where I ran into my big failure.  Yep, we slept on the floor.  And, amazingly, for a country that averages 30 deg C or more during daytime, it was FREEZING at night (cold enough to frost).  And as usual, insufficient bedding, blah, blah.  All of which gave James a bad cold / asthma attack and left me slightly fearful he may not ever speak to me again….

Fortunately, Inle saved me.  Not only is the lake gorgeous and the ethnic fishing style picturesque (they row with their legs.  See piccies – I still haven’t worked out exactly how or indeed why they do this but sure looks good), but we were staying in a pretty kick-ass hotel, made up of bungalows on stilts built out over the water.  AND we managed to wangle an upgrade (I looked so desolate at our initial room having hard twin beds they took pity on us. Result!).  We had a lovely lazy couple of days messing round on boats and James has consequently just about forgiven me for the floor disaster, despite the fact that we didn’t manage to see the famous jumping cats of the Jumping Cat Monastery (I really don’t make this stuff up) actually jump, and also despite the fact that the Lake’s famous golden Buddha turned out to be a big golden blob due to slightly over-enthusiastic application of gold leaf.

I think the rum sours helped.

Now if I can only find some fine dining, I’ll be right back on track…..Although this is Burma, not necessarily the world’s great culinary epicenter.

Arrgggh.  Being an itinerary fairy’s tough!

Myanmar Money Madness

Ah Myanmar.

Well, it’s actually rather nice. In fact, to those of us recently arrived from North Korea and the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, Myanmar looks like a paragon of personal freedom and cheerfulness. There is a much longer post expanding on this somewhere in my somewhat lackluster literary lobes, but I may leave that for another time. What I want to talk about here is money.

Given we are traveling for such a long time, we have a few failsafes money-wise. Travelers cheques, a few snippets of the major reserve currencies here and there, debit cards on a number of different networks from a number of different banks in a number of different countries and the occasional credit card that we try not to use. All of these are, of course, useless in Myanmar. What you need in Myanmar is cash.

And not just any cash. Specifically (in case you are wondering) what you need in Myanmar is high value US dollar bills, printed after 2006 (big heads, not small heads, and with color on the notes) and excluding certain reputedly-commonly-counterfeited serial numbers. These bills also need to be utterly clean – as good as new, no tears, no folds, no marks of any kind. And it really matters.

Here’s a test for you: open your wallet, get out all the notes in it and take a really, really hard look at them. You would be surprised at the proportion of bills that have some kind of mark and are therefore considered useless for these purposes. By the way, if you actually carry properly pristine dollar bills around in your wallet, they will be too creased and folded to be usable in next to no time. I have good friends who have been reduced to ironing money to get the creases out on trips to Myanmar (we tried it, and it didn’t work so well – possibly because we didn’t use a steam iron).

All sorts of people deface money in tiny ways for some reason or other. People write notes on them. Banks put counting marks on them. They get stained in people’s pockets. There is a drop zone I know of in the States that was bored of the locals complaining that skydivers were a bunch of good-for-nothing layabouts, went to the bank with a big empty box and started offering visiting jumpers change for their $23 jump tickets in $2 bills. They also stamped these incredibly-rare-but-yes-actually-legal $2 bills with a small aeroplane to show where they come from. The logic being that every time one turned up in a local’s cash register it would be clear that the money had been brought into the local economy by the drop zone (which is all the bloody time – a busy DZ rakes in cash like nobody’s business). It’s slightly surreal, this little island of lightly defaced $2 bills down in Florida, but it’s a nice (and true) story. Just don’t bring the bloody things to Myanmar.

So, we spent a good few days banging around Bangkok trying to get enough clean dollars for a three week trip to Myanmar. No problem, thought we: we bank with Citibank, and there are real life Citibank branches in Bangkok. Let’s just say that Citi continued their gleaming run of international customer service excellence (couriering a replacement bank card to Lucy care of a branch in Hong Kong, only for the local Citibank branch manager to refuse to accept the envelope because Lucy wasn’t there in person; taking quarter of an hour to pre-authorize a bank advance with me on the phone from Uzbekistan at $2 a minute, and then cutting my card off anyway “as a security precaution”). Citi, we hate you.

It took us a few days and naturally ended up a race against time. We got some dollars in Cambodia; we cashed our travelers cheques; we withdrew Thai Baht on all of our cards and converted it back to dollars; we begged and pleaded for the local bank to swap some of our very lightly marked US dollars for pristine ones; we used the US dollar ATMs that are only allowed airside in major Thai international airports (seriously, wtf?). We budgeted, we counted, we safety margined and we packed all the notes secure in card or plastic and put them safely away in our luggage. And we breathed a huge sigh of relief…

…So picture our surprise and joy when we bumped into a working ATM in Yangon, very happily connected to the international ATM network, that took our cards, thought about it, cheerfully pumped out a chunk of local currency and looked at us as if to say “what?”.


Information, for anyone who stumbles across this blog looking for actual Myanmar travel advice rather than vague distracting amusement:

  • The ATM in question belongs to CB Bank. CB has accepted Mastercard since November 2012, so the branch staff told us. The one we used was on the Eastern side of Bogyoke Aung San Market, CB Bank’s ATM locator is here
  • You will hear a lot of people telling you to get your US$ for Myanmar in Bangkok. Thailand actually has pretty strict currency controls – you are only allowed to withdraw Thai Baht on your international debit / credit cards, you then have to convert this to US$, suffering FX margins (twice) on the whole amount. You also have to do this on a weekday, and before 3:30pm, when the foreign exchange desks are all forced to close. There are US$ ATMs in the Suvarnabhumi international airport (BKK), but we passed through a few times before we noticed that these are only airside. If you come off your plane, stroll unawares through immigration and try to get US$ from an ATM while waiting for your luggage you are stuffed. Also, be aware that Air Asia flights to Myanmar (the cheapest and most regular, when we looked) do not go from Suvarnabhumi Airport, but from Don Muang International Airport (DMK).
  • If we were having our time again we would have got US$ in Cambodia (where there are US$ ATMs seemingly everywhere in tourist areas). If we were on holiday to Myanmar rather than on a bloody long trip our advice to ourselves would be to GET YOUR DOLLARS AT HOME! Seriously, be old fashioned about it, go to an actual branch of your own bank, tell them what you are up to, even preorder the notes if you have to. It’s a whole lot easier than getting the things on the road.
  • The purpose of all these dollars is to convert them into Myanmar Kyat (although many tourist hotels take or prefer dollars). There is a whole bunch of advice in guide books and on the internet about how you need to convert dollars with illegal money changers in the market as they give you the best rate etc. This is true in Uzbekistan, but not so in Myanmar – there seems to have been some kind of civilizing currency / banking reform whereby the banks actually offer the best rates, rather than the worst. Lonely Planet – keep up!
  • Not so much information as such, but for those of you who want to visualize our currency fun in more detail, reread the second paragraph of this information section, and imagine finding out every single fact in that paragraph, by trial and error, one at a time, in 35 degree heat and 100% humidity. Joy.

Happy Bloggy Birthday!

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Around the World with James & Lucy, happy birthday to you! Hurrah!

A strange thing to celebrate, perhaps, but today our little blog notched up its 10,000th view. Like finger paint daubings sellotaped to the fridge door, our work may not be the Mona Lisa, but it’s ours and we are rather proud of it. Thanks to everybody who has subscribed, read, flipped through the photos, commented (either on the site or in person) and generally kept us blog motivated through all the tough, dreary days of our round the world trip (ahem…). We couldn’t have done it without you.

Now, technically, this is its 10,000th hit (excluding spam and our own page views) since I worked out how to operate the blog’s statistics package in July, but who’s counting anyway? Interestingly, while we are on the subject of statistics packages (no, seriously, go with me here), the one we are using allows us to see what search terms people enter into google to reach our blog. And it makes rather surprising reading – here are four rather special days’ data that we have saved, from around the time we were blogging about Vanuatu and their dignified, ancient ceremonies…


Who searches for “audio sound track of Lucy gets trapped”? Who are all these dancing people? Where are all their clothes? Why is the internet so obsessed with dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark? What the hell were all the “encrypted search terms”, given what the unencrypted ones were? The mind boggles.

It took travelling all the way around the planet to discover this, but the world is full of deeply weird people, I tell you.

Encore, Angkor

Angkor Wat is pretty darn cool. Lots of temples, all very old and very magnificent, AND you get to indulge all your Lara Croft fantasies when you visit (amazing the numbers of tourists sporting little shorts, crop tops and a bloody great gun strapped to the thigh. Not such a good look on a middle aged man with a belly…..). So magnificent is it, in fact, that it’s one of our designated “so-good-its-worth-going-back-to” round the world sites – I’ve been there before, 10 years ago or such. We were also a little cheeky, sneaking in a side trip to Angkor Wat from Bangkok, where we had to go to get our visas for Myanmar / Burma without actually visiting the rest of Cambodia. We did think about the Killing Fields, which is an incredible but devastating place to visit – but decided that maybe it’s not a place to go twice in a lifetime less the post trauma counseling fees get too costly…..

And as James has mentioned, even better, we managed to coincide the trip with the time my Mum and Dad were there, without even mangling the itinerary too much. Hurrah!!

For those who haven’t been to Angkor, the main thing to note is that it’s MASSIVE. The most well known temple of the complex, Angkor Wat, is apparently the largest religious building in existence – and it’s one of several hundred of the damn things dotted around several square miles of pristine jungle (well, now pristine – it went through a period of slightly less than pristineness post Khmer Rouge, when the whole area was landmined. Added a bit of adventure to the temple hopping). They sell 3 day tickets and you kind of need that to get your way around a half decent selection of the major sites.

The other thing to note is that it’s hot as hell, almost always above 30 Celsius. And that you go stomping up and down all these steep staircases (the temples are primarily built along the Hindu mountain-temple model, so they’re very tall) in said heat which gets quite quickly quite knackering. It’s surprisingly hard work for…well, a holiday. It calls for a strategy involving intense prioritization of the best temples, and plenty of time out for a decent lunch and a refreshing coconut or two.

With this in mind, we designed our campaign. Day 1, an onslaught of the slightly lesser known temples: Ta Prohm (actually quite well known this one – it’s the Tomb Raider temple, the one with all the trees growing round, through and out of it), a sneak by Pre Rup to check out the lions, whistle past the water temple of Neak Pean before spending some time at Preah Khan (amazing – an almost matrix like structure of interweaving corridors and halls, all near deserted and there to be explored) before heading to Angkor Wat itself for sundown. Day 2: visiting the 2 most spectacular sites of Angkor Wat (you’ll know it if you see it) and the Bagan (James’ favourite, a quite spooky temple covered with giant stone smiley Buddhas). Day 3: an hour’s tuk-tuk ride out into the countryside (which was brilliant! Rice paddies a go-go) to Banteay Srei, a tiny outlying temple famous for the delicacy of its carving (of which there is LOTS). Angkor Wat lay defeated before us.

Favourite day? For me, probably day 1. The lesser known temples are usually very quiet and there’s precious few restrictions on where you wander, so you get to go exploring through these amazing ancient sites at will. Makes you feel a bit like an old time archaeologist, discovering the place for the first time. Despite the fact that this wasn’t actually the first time. And hopefully, not the last.

In With the Outlaws

Or rather, out with the in-laws. For last week I had my first family holiday with Lucy’s Mum and Dad. And very nice it was too!

This being Round the World With James & Lucy, and this being the Garrett family, we didn’t spend our first holiday together going somewhere nice and sensible. Oh no. Instead of, say, hiring a nice cottage in the countryside, or perhaps heading off to the beach somewhere, we arranged to … meet up in a rooftop bar in Cambodia and do the rounds of Angkor Wat together. Result!

It was a truly excellent four days. We soon settled into the holiday routine – up not too early for a good breakfast; hop two by two into our motorbike tuk tuk contraption driven by our trusty driver; off temple bashing until we wilted from the extraordinary humid heat; a long lazy lunch, rounded out by fresh spring rolls and fresh coconut juice; more temple bashing in the afternoon (or maybe a sneaky snooze); then glad rags on for a fortifying gin & tonic or two; and off for a delicious dinner in one of the best restaurants in town. It was tough, I tell you.

More on Angkor Wat / Siem Reap later – it isn’t known as one of the best temple sites in the world for nothing and we may have taken a picture or two. For now, picture us on a happy holiday, with not a sleeping-on-the-floor, a scary man with a machete or a pit toilet in sight!