Rhinos for Christmas

It's not often you get to combine Christmas, rhinos and elephants in one blog but this was a good week. After our rather dodgy start to India last week, when we had to drive through the state on Manipur which is suffering from an economic blockage and civil unrest, we found a quiet place to park up for a few days. Beautiful Kaziranga National Park was just the sort of thing we were hoping for from this amazing country. On the banks of the Brahmaputra River, the huge floodplains have the highest concentration of Indian Rhinos in the world.  We were all tired and ready for a few days of staying in the same place as well as celebrating Christmas. Although Myanmar had been fabulous it had been pretty hectic, we find staying in hotels and eating out every night far more tiring than cooking ourselves and sleeping in the truck. After a scout around near the jeep stand, we asked at Aranya Hotel, one of the big Assam tourist organisation hotels that had a big garden if we could park up. It was a great place for a few days to try and get some jobs done on the truck, yet again our technical skills let us down but at least we now know what spare parts we need - if we can get hold of them.  image We are feeling a lot better about travelling with the issues caused by India's currency problems. At the beginning of the month overnight with no warning the government removed the 500 and 1000 rupee notes, effectively removing 86% of the cash from circulation. The aim was to remove the black market economy and it sounds like it was a popular move with many people. It has caused widespread disruption to the economy though and we've yet to fully see how this is affecting the population. They introduced a new 2000 rupee note and have restricted ATM withdrawals to 2000 rupees ($30) a day. For us as travellers we were worried about how this would affect our ability to move around. We came from Myanmar fully stocked with food and fuel, not knowing what the current situation was. In the state of Manipur we had seen ATM queues 30-40 people long and we had heard that many ATMs all over the country had run out of cash. However on our first morning in Assam, passing through a small village I had called Steve to a halt when I saw a bank and it had cash. Just two days before the 2000R daily restriction had been lifted for foreigners, however that was still the transaction restriction. With no one in the queue (it was 6.30 am) and cash in the machine, Steve managed 9 transactions before our UK bank pulled the plug. Within half an hour we had the inevitable email from our UK bank: someone has been using your card unusually in India, yes we know - us. Even though we told them in advance that this would be the case, I think this is going to be a frequent phone call with the bank. The good news was that we now had cash, the slightly trickier news was that it was all in 2000R notes. In the end it has turned out the bigger problem for us was getting change. Buying vegies in the market, of course no one has change. National Park fees - no change. Even petrol stations are reluctant to part with their precious smaller notes. From my past memories of being in the country, Indians are wonderfully resourceful and the same seems to be happening now. The hotel was great at letting us run up a tab for parking, laundry, dinner and a jeep safari, we settled up the difference when we left. We didn't just come to Kaziranga for a relax, we came to see rhinos. Rising over an hour before dawn, a taxi took us over rough tracks in through the fog in the pitch black to the edge of the park. It was so dark that we didn't see our steeds approaching till the last minute - elephants! We weren't sure we would see anything but the early pre-dawn light soon started to filter through the mists. The elephants were sure of foot on the boggy ground and it wasn't long before we saw our first rhinos, a mother and baby. Beautiful beasts and quite different from the African type. As it turned around, Alisha got a fit of the giggles "Look Mummy, it's got big saggy grey knickers on."  image At times the well named "elephant grass", come up to our waists on top of the elephants but we were still able to see several more rhino, wild boar, wild buffalo and deer. Alisha's favourite was the tiny baby deer tucked into hiding places in the grass on top of the elephants we could see so well and although they moved, it didn't seem to worry them too much. Even our mahout was thrilled when we spotted a 3 day old baby rhino tucked down in a river bank, the mother didn't seem bothered by the elephants. Eventually the sun rose over the horizon and it was time to say goodbye to the elephants. The elephants seemed to be kept as a family group with their young walking alongside them. One naughty 10 month old male kept on getting under the feet of the herd, he was constantly getting a cuff from their trunks for getting in the way. As the adults discharged their riders the little ones wandered about, not asking for food but just saying hello. imageimage imageimage image That afternoon we went to another part of the park for a jeep safari and although we saw lots of rhino and other animals coming down to the water for a late afternoon drink, it wasn't quite as atmospheric as that morning. image Unsurprisingly, Christmas day started early for us with whispers from the girls at 5 am that "Santa, found us in India". They kept their word though and apart from the odd rustle as they felt their stocking, they didn't wake us till 6. Then it was the usual pile into our bed for their stockings, lazy breakfast and presents. We had been so impressed with the girls with their requests for presents they both said "Just surprise us with something nice but we hope Santa remembers to give us a toothbrush like every year." Knowing we would have only just arrived in India, we had done most of our shopping in Chiang Mai when we had time. We didn't even have enough time to make any decorations. In the end Lucy and I cobbled together a last minute Christmas tree from Lego. The rest of the day passed in a blur of playing and eating, unfortunately I didn't find a church nearby to go to. Steve purchased a very fresh chicken from the market, it was still clucking when he paid but luckily they offered the full service for their more squeamish customers. It made a very tasty dinner with roast potatoes, vegies and Alisha's famous apple pie for tea. imageimage Our usual post dinner Christmas lunch, was slightly different this year. We wandered along the dirt road to the picnic grounds nearby, as it was a national holiday and a Sunday it was heaving with people picnics. No soggy sandwiches or sad looking cake for the Indians, they bought massive cooking pots, built fires and cooked up curries for their big parties. Each group had its own stereo system blasting out Bollywood hits at full volume. We were really pleased we had found a relatively quiet spot nearby for our time here. image image A rubber drying house, the rubber is collected from trees then made into sheets. It was our fourth Christmas on the road: Belize, Argentina, Australia and now India. They have all been unique, creating wonderful memories. After 5 nights in one place, we were raring to go on Boxing Day. Whilst driving along the main road that splits the park in two, we saw 2 more rhinos and a herd of wild elephants enjoying an early morning bathe in a tea plantation. image It was a long days drive, getting half way to our next planned stop in Sikkim, with a stop overnight in a hotel's garden. Our average speed has come right down in Asia due to the roads and volume of traffic, making an average of just 40kph. So Steve was delighted to find the road turning into a dual-carriage way. What wasn't so wonderful was the large numbers of bikes, motorbikes, auto rickshaws and even cars going the wrong way along the dual-carriage way in the fast lane!

Reflections on Myanmar

Lucy When we went to Myanmar we had to have a guide with us there where three guides called Jo, Jo and Tante ( that's how you say it not how you spell it, the iPad would tell us it's wrong if we wrote how you really spell it)  We had to stay in more hotels than we usually do because the guides needed to stay in town, although they didn't usually stay in the same hotel. We went to loads of pagodas, we went to this giant lying down Buddha where a lady wanted a photo with me and she gave me her necklace. We saw her later on at the war cemetery and she was really happy to see us again. We went to loads more wats, my favourite was another lying down Buddha where there were 4 adorable kittens. I got them to chase my necklace they jumped up high to get it. One of them got their claws stuck in it and when I waggled it, it looked like she was shaking paws.  We went to a big gold rock that was said to be balanced on Buddha's hair. Only men were allowed to touch it. Alisha said it looked like one push would send it toppling and send it toppling to squash loads of people but Jo told us that there had been an earthquake years before and it hadn't even fallen then. We went below it and there was loads of paper fluttering down, it was the paper from the gold leaf that people had stuck on the rock. Then the wind blew and it started raining gold. We tried to collect but there wasn't much gold when it was all squashed up. We went to a lake, where we fed the seagulls and we saw fishermen paddling with their legs. It looked absurd but worked as the fisherman caught lots of fish. We went to a market where me and Alisha brought a silver fish, it was female because it wiggled up and down, and an old fashioned weighing scales. We went to a silver place where they were making a full moon biscuit and more fish out of silver - we bought Mummy a full moon for Christmas. We went to lots of places that day, my favourite place was the Jumping Cat Monastery but the cats weren't jumping they were too busy having a nap but they were very cute.  Jo the guide, liked playing chase with me but he had to tuck his longhi up and make it into shorts but he never beat me. He was also very good at playing Uno but didn't beat me again. We left Myanmar with heavy hearts as we had to say goodbye to all the lovely people as we went up into the mountains to India. But not before Tante (our government minder) got one last photo with me, he loved taking photos and took photos of us wherever we went.  Alisha Myanmar was an interesting country. We had a guide for most of Myanmar which was kind of weird as we are used to driving on our own but it was useful for languages and rides to the tourist attractions (and of course so Lucy could have someone else to annoy who wasn't me). But it was a bit annoying when in a town they would overtake all the vehicles in front of them and we would be behind six cars plus a hundred motorbikes and they were also a lot faster then us. I wasn't super keen on all the temples and it was a lot worse when Lucy was in a boisterous mood especially when it involved lots of standing on my toes and head- butting me. Burmese food isn't as famous as let's say Thai but it is good. It involves lots of curries for lunch and a stir-fry for dinner, all served with enough rice to out weigh an elephant. We read in our book that people in Myanmar eat 195 kg of rice a year and Europeans only eat 3 kg! Me and Lucy mostly ate fried rice for lunch by the end of Myanmar we had enough. I don't think we will be eating that again any time soon.  In one of the temples daddy had to wear a longi he looked very silly, me and Lucy laughed and laughed. Men from Myanmar mostly wear longhis all the time and it looked good on them but strange on Daddy. All in all I enjoyed Myanmar though it's very difficult to enjoy a Bagan temple sunrise when someone is standing on your toes.  Gilly Sometimes changing countries isn't too much of a surprise but as soon was we crossed the border from Thailand it felt like we had entered somewhere very different. As the girls and I waited for Steve to complete customs we watched ladies with a yellow paste on their faces; men in longhis (sarongs); and then a procession of maroon robed monks collecting their morning alms. Then the national anthem struck up and everyone stood to attention, at the end lots of the men saluted.  Thanaka is a light yellow paste made from a type of bark, it is both a cooling beauty cream and sunscreen. It Is worn by the majority of women, children and even some men. What delighted the girls and I was that everyone puts on their own design everyday. Ladies usually chose something elegant like circles, hearts, squiggles or even leaves on their cheeks, foreheads and chin. Much like I apply sunscreen to my girls, mums seem to slather it on their kids' whole faces as we saw on the little ones on their way to school or draw a cute design on babies. You can buy ready made pots but most people prefer to grind their own on a special flat stone every morning. We noticed that portable thanaka stones were popular souvenirs for local pilgrims at the tourist spots. At one of the temples in Mandalay a girl kindly drew a leaf design on my cheeks, it felt lovely and cool. Myanmar has gone through some very big political changes over the last year, with the Military Junta slowly relinquishing power to the democratically elected government. Our 3 year old guidebook warned that we shouldn't talk to people about politics but people spoke to us openly about their support for the changes and Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. They said people were happy with the changes and that things were very rapidly changing within the country. We did see a very alarming sign outside the Royal palace, which is in a military base, in Mandalay. Kyaw said that there are signs like this all over the country, the only difference here was it was written in English. We found the people of Myanmar (the Burmese are only one group) very friendly and pleased to meet foreigners. For instance, one night we were just quietly deliberating if some pancakes from a roadside stall would make a good desert, when a guy also waiting, bought us a bag full. Blonde Lucy was a hit wherever we went with her, it was a bit like travelling with a minor royal, everywhere people wanted a photo with her. She gallantly smiled her way through hundreds of snaps, we often joined in too. Thantay, our government minder, was constantly taking photos and videos of us especially when we were enjoying the sights. His English was very limited so we never fully found out if it was just a hobby; he was showing his bosses that we weren't up to mischief; or it was for the Tourism department's PR. Maybe we'll find ourselves stars of a visit Myanmar campaign in the future, we think it is definitely worth a visit. Steve It was strange to have a guide through Myanmar after all the Kms we had done by ourselves but we were really pleased to get such a great guide and driver. We were never very sure what the role of the representative from the Ministry of Tourism was but he was also very nice and helped out when there was some confusion. It was great to be able to transit Myanmar and also to see some of its wonderful sights. Bagan was very special especially at sunrise and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was amazing. Myanmar feels different to the rest of South East Asia. In parts it felt more like India but as we came to know the country better I think it just has its own distinctive flavour. Tourism is still in its relative infancy and the country is still at the beginning of its development. Roads were still been built effectively by hand and we saw some children working both on the roads and in restaurants. There were also a lot of contradictions in Myanmar. My favourite was the road system. In the 1960s the country switched to driving on the right hand side of the road (the European side) as the other side was a vestige of British colonialism. However most (90%) of their cars and some of the trucks are imported from Japan so have their steering wheels on the right hand (wrong) side. Overtaking is already challenging but this made it doubly so for the drivers. Bizarrely the toll booths are set up to accommodate the steering wheels that are on the wrong side and are also conveniently placed on the wrong side too. Overall it was a great two weeks, certainly different for us but the guide and driver made sure everything went smoothly and took care of everything for us. It was quite a shock to arrive in India and have to start doing everything for ourselves again.

Beautiful Bagan – Worrying India

Slowly the early morning mist lifted and the sun started to climb up into the sky. As it did it bathed the temples in the plain beneath us in early morning light, lighting up the beauty. It was a wonderful scene and as the sun rose behind the hills so did 17 balloons to give the place an even more magical setting. We sat on top of our own small stupa with a few others for over an hour enjoying the view. Mind you it was a relief we had not listened to our guide the evening before whilst watching an equally magnificent sunset over the temples. Initially he had said to get to the temples in time for sunrise we would have to be up at 4.30am. As we pondered how undesirable this would be it occurred to me that at this time of the year as sunset was at 5.30pm there was no way sunrise could be so early so we settled on been picked up at 6am which meant we arrived at the perfect time. Not thoughthat we would have had any problem getting up at 4.30am. As we were sleeping in the truck we could hear people walking by outside and a van going past playing music. We thought there must be a festival nearby but no we were told it is a tradition in the winter for people in Myanmar to go for an early morning walk for good health. The van playing music was to encourage people to get out and walk. I think if this happened in England someone would string the van driver up. Leaving Mandalay a few days before, we had soon entered the central plains of Myanmar. It was here that the temples of Bagan were located by the Irawaddy River. From the 11th to the 13th century there was a mass of temple building with over 2,000 been built. Over the years they have fallen into ruin and been damaged by earthquakes and restored (some of it controversially) but Bagan remains the cultural heart and pride of Myanmar. In fact there had been a major earthquake as recently as this August which had caused a lot of damage and we saw volunteers eagerly making repairs. We spent a wonderful day exploring the major temples. But the best way to appreciate them was sat atop one of the stupas and to be able to admire just how many there were. dsc06512dsc06506-1 Whilst in Bagan, we heard the bad news that 4 policeman had been killed in an attack by insurgents in the state of Manipur in India on the road we would be driving in a few days time. We were worried that because of an escalation in the troubles in this state the border with Myanmar might close or that we might not be able to proceed into India. This would be a bit of a problem as we could not stay in Myanmar, we could not go back to Thailand as we did not have a permit, so India was our only way out. What with the currency problems (India recently abolished its highest value bank notes and placed restrictions on withdrawing cash from ATMs) in India this was one more thing to worry about. From Bagan we headed to Monwa where we visited another massive Buddha. This one was more than 30 stories high. dsc06671 Here we also met up with another Burma Senses group doing the trip through Myanmar in the opposite direction. They were a group of 6 motorcyclists and one backpacker and we had a very enjoyable lunch with them. It was also great to talk to them about India and they were able to lay some of our worries to rest as they had travelled through the troubled state of Manipur only a few day before. They also said it was getting easier to get rupees in India although not in Manipur. With these problems in mind we ensured we were fully stocked with food and fuel before heading into India. Our last few days in Myanmar were spent on long driving days on bad roads with landslides heading over the mountains. On reaching the border it was sad to say goodbye to our guides and driver who had been great throughout our trip. They ensured we had a painless exit from Myanmar (you need a special permission to use the border with India) and took us to the gate post into India and with that we were into the chaos of India. dsc06690 dsc06693 Even getting in was a bit chaotic. First we had to find immigration which was a mile down the road in the middle of town. Then we needed to find customs but this was back out of town the way we had come. As we were looking confused, the kind immigration officer jumped into the truck with us to take us there. From looking in the various books that were meticulously filled in with all our details it's clear we were the first foreigners to cross this border since the motorcyclists we had met a few days before. I then thought I would try and see if I could exchange my Burmese Kyat for some Indian rupees. Much to my surprise I was taken to a money changer who exchanged them at a decent rate and into small notes too. Result. Now we just had the 110km drive up and over the mountains to the state capital of Impahl to complete. This was the road on which the insurgent attack had taken place. Fortunately our trip along it whilst slow was uneventful other than the mandatory stops at the army checkpoints along the way. In fact if the road hadn't been so twisty I could have enjoyed the wonderful views as we crossed. Before we left the border Gilly had insisted we put large signs on the truck saying "Tourist". There was an economic embargo in the state and trucks were not been allowed in. Gilly didn't want us to be mistaken for a goods truck. I had initially rubbished the idea but grudgingly had to admit it was a good idea when I saw that all the other vehicles on the road had signs saying what they were. dsc06694 Pulling into Impahl we now needed to find somewhere to stay. With the troubles, we were keen to find somewhere safe and found a large hotel where we could park the truck. However we needed to take a room. Now how to pay. I didn't have enough rupees. I couldn't pay by credit card as all the mobile data systems had been shut down in the city due to the troubles so the terminal wouldn't connect and the hotel didn't take dollars. We were also informed that, as had happened the previous night, most of the city was likely to be under curfew that evening. However they did know someone who would change dollars but as it was getting dark I did not fancy getting in the truck and driving down side streets looking for this person. This is where the reception clerk came to the rescue. He fetched his motorbike and within minutes I was whisked off on the back of his bike into the darkness of a city about to go under curfew to change a few dollars. What a start to India. Reading the local newspapers that night we learnt that there had been more problems in the state with vehicles been torched along the highways. We now had to make a decision should we stay or should we go. We had also seen that all the ATMs in town had long long queues so money was also going to be a problem. We decided to sleep on it. The next morning the newspapers made further grim reading. There had been more vehicles torched on what seemed like every road out of the city. Still we decided to go. We felt it was only going to get worse and the quicker we were out of the state the better. The drive out of the state was pretty straightforward. We were only asked to slow once by a group of guys standing in the middle of the road but once they realised we were tourists (Gilly's sign doing its job) we were enthusiastically waved through with big smiles and lots of waving. As we approached the state border we did see one truck still smouldering and then bizarrely what looked like the whole town out with picks and hoes clearing the vegetation on the side of the road. We were relieved to enter the state of Nagaland and the hilltop town of Kohima. Mind you our reward was an almighty traffic jam that meant it took us 2 hours to get through the town, a distance of only 3kms. It was so slow Gilly even managed to pop into the back to make lunch whilst I edged us very slowly through town. From there it was another twisty drive out of the hills to Dimapur. As it was getting dark when we entered the town we were keen to find somewhere to stay. Unfortunately none of the hotels had suitable parking so we headed out of town. I hate driving in the dark but here it was even worse as there were bikes, rickshaws and people in the road and no lights or street lighting. Shortly after leaving town we came to a large fuel station. As we knew trucks regularly park up in them we headed in to be met by a lovely friendly Sikh gentleman. Of course we could stay. Whilst it may not have been the most glamorous location we were relieved to be settled somewhere safe and relatively quiet and in the comfort of our own truck. We can now look forward to the rest of India. Let's just hope it's not as exciting as the first two days!