Heading south – Malaysia

Along the jungle road and across the Malaysian border and we’ve left behind Thailand’s hotpants, obesity crisis and nasal sing song, where intonation is everything. The differences are sudden and quite stark.

_CTF3058-1

The Malaysians often wear more, especially the ladies, dressed head to foot in something voluminous and Islamically modest. Many men wear little pill caps, as we’ve seen before in the ‘stans’ and a few places in India. It’s not universal though – there are still shirtless men in rural areas, and hotpants in towns. Malaysia is a predominantly Moslem country, compared to Buddhist Thailand, although as we saw later it has very substantial non-moslem minorities. There are many mosques, but also numerous Chinese Buddhist temples, Indian Hindu temples and some churches.

On the road, Thailand’s population of 8 motorbikes and 2 pickups in every 10 vehicles is replaced, unfortunately, with a more European mix: lots of cars. It makes the roads feel a lot more cramped and dangerous, although the driving is nothing to complain about.

Trying to avoid the main roads has lead to some delightful routes along minor coastal roads and weaving across the plentiful lanes dissecting the numerous and expansive paddy fields; water monitors to the left, water monitors to the right.  Occasionally one has scampered ahead of us before taking the plunge.

As we progressed south it became more difficult to avoid the ‘principle highways’ full of roaring traffic especially as we were all squeezed between the mountains and around the many inlets and rivers.  At one point, two of our three electronic navigation devices said, ‘No’, to a way across the river avoiding a main road but Maps.me clearly showed there is a passage. At lunch we quizzed a local guy who spoke reasonable English but he was not interested in the idea of a river crossing. Nothing on the other side except palm plantations, he said, and was clearly in favour of the main road up and round the inlet.

An inner glow welled up inside me, on the other side is a palm plantation: small lanes, no traffic, trees for cover. It couldn’t be better! But did a ferry exist, as there evidently wasn’t a bridge? We set off with our fingers crossed. 1.5 km wasn’t too far to go to find out. As we rounded the corner onto the waters edge the ramp on the other side was clearly visible. Flapping arms directed us further along the road where we came upon an opening between workshops and boat houses. Initially it didn’t look too promising but tucked in at the edge of this broad, rope-strewn slipway was a rickety jetty with a short, dumpy, roof topped boat with a section cut out of its side – the ferry. In a jiff we’d jiggled the bikes across the random, ill fitting planks of the gang way, through the hole onto the ferry, to the amusement of the folks already on board with their small motorbikes lined up ready to go.

There’s a lot of unhappiness worldwide about the way the rainforests are being cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations. Malaysia is a prime example. The same comments probably apply to the old rubber plantations too, and coconut palms. But although they’re undiverse compared to rainforest, they’re not so bleak. Other plants and trees crowd the edges of tracks and irrigation ditches, we see monitors, monkeys and squirrels. Brahminy kites and crested serpent eagles patrol the treetops, while purple herons and kingfishers line the ditches.

After all our careful planning the South Westerly monsoon has come as a bit of a surprise. Cycling in it has thrown up new challenges. We’ve always attempted to set off early each morning but regularly fail (Gideon sez that’s not a new game, we played it with sea kayaks too).  Now there is further motivation. Not infrequently, as the day progresses the black thunder clouds chase us along the roads, the rumbling of thunder close behind, snapping at our heels. The first drops of rain quickly develop into rigid rods beating down upon our backs. Heads low peering forwards as we spy for somewhere to cower; we’ve been remarkably lucky at finding shelter. Mindful of the time however, eventually we have to grit our teeth and set off again. Cars whizz past through newly formed pools and suddenly we’re wearing them. It’s warm of course, but the soggy shorts chafe.  Bikes gears and brakes pick up destructive grit and grime.

_CTF3284-1

Our first stop was at Georgetown, a UNESCO listed ex-colonial town on Penang island. Penang was British long before Malaysia’s sultanates fell under the control of the East India Co. or the empire. The island was nominally uninhabited when the sultan offered it, in 1786, to the East India Company in exchange for protection from Siam (which the EIC failed to provide). The EIC brought in a lot of South Indian labour, whose descendants are still running microcosms of India all over the state, and attracted a lot of Chinese, who to this day are the largest ethnic group in Georgetown. It seems quite often in Malaysia that the ethnic mix, and therefore culture, in the cities, is quite different from the country, which is more Malay, and more Islamic.

Whilst I found it fascinating that in such a small area it was possible to find half a dozen architectural styles of shop-houses spanning 300 years it was the clan jetties that captured my imagination most. From cargo landing jetties to the addition of cargo stores to workers shelters to family/clan residences in a little over a hundred years. Built on stilts at the waters edge they cunningly avoid the land tax. Today they sit at the base of immaculate white towering sky scrapers making an awkward mix between old and new. Each clan jetty traces its origins – and the origins of its inhabitants – to a particular province/region in China.

Alas, while on a bus up the coast of Penang, thieves struck, and Gideon’s phone and bank card were stolen. Gideon spent the next couple of hours using Clare’s phone to lock out the old one, change passwords, and call the bank. It was easy enough to replace the phone nearby, and there was little data on it that wasn’t stored online. A new bank card was ordered, which, thankfully, Hailey sent out to our planned Singapore stop. The only ongoing difficulty after a few days was the loss of the UK SIM card, which unfortunately being Vodafone, meant hours and hours of meaningless and useless “customer service” before establishing that probably it couldn’t be replaced without visiting their shops in the UK. The other loss was the really nice phone case I’d made myself – the new phone has to make do with a batik souvenir one, helpfully modified by a little India tailor.

From Georgetown south along the west coast, the Malaysian peninsula is populated and urbanised.  The lengthways hills limit the small road options. Little gems like Pontian Kecil,  which still encapsulate the Malaysian seafaring and fishing heritage, are few and far between, without unwanted detours. Still, it was our choice, to avoid the hilly Cameron Highlands in the middle, and if we hadn’t wanted to see the cities, the quieter east coast was available. So the cycling latterly has been a bit crap, even though Malaysian drivers are generally slower and more considerate than British ones.

Our second stop in Malaysia was the capital, Kuala Lumpur. With over 7 million souls in its greater area, it is around the 50th biggest city in the world. We’ve increasingly been using Travelfish for city information, as it’s helpfully concise. In this case, it directed us to Chinatown, where we easily found a cheap and comfy hotel.  When we strode out in the morning, we stumbled over a good selection of the city’s sights.

British Empire architects seem to have enjoyed themselves with Mughal styles and motifs. These Edwardian low rises are now at the foot of steel and glass towers, many of which, again, refer to Islamic forms. Weaving around the buildings is a modern throng of international people appearing from busy roads, pavements, metro system, monorail. The heat outdoors under the sun is intense, but tall buildings provide shade; shops, malls, hotels and up-market restaurants compete to impress with their sophisticated air conditioning.

Melaka (Malacca) was our final stop in Malaysia. Unlike our other halts, it seemed single-mindedly a tourist town, and little else. Being the weekend it was crowded with tourists from KL and Singapore, pushing the already high prices up a notch or two. A one day dash was sufficient to see yet more notable houses of worship, China town, the Jonker Walk night market and, from multiple other choices, we ventured into the maritime museum. A smaller version of Nelson’s Victory provided the setting for an informative trail through the passage of time in Malaysian sea faring.

Some very pretty cycle rickshaws in Melaka, each with a sound and light show.

After Malaysia, to the city-state of Singapore, a simple bridge/border crossing, no visa complications, and one of the wealthiest places in the world.

Thailand

Thailand was initially, following on from our route across the ‘Stan’s’, India and Myanmar, extraordinarily ordinary.

_CTF2092-1
Much of the scenery could have been back in Sussex; fields dotted with trees, some ploughed others left to scrub land. A few oxen, occasional sugar cane fields and the odd palm tree marked it as different. The homes and shops were frequently brick built. The shacks, when they existed, were now a more up market version of log cabins rather than the flimsy woven bamboo affairs frequently seen in Myanmar. Actually, we haven’t seen much bamboo growing, perhaps that’s why?
There is also no evidence of a national or historical costume. Way back we have seen traditions that have marked the different nations: the occasionally worn Lederhosen in Germany, shoes with curled up toes right back in Vienna, scull caps – square, Uzbekistan, scull caps round, Kazakhstan,  tall felt hats – Kyrgyzstan or buzzbeee style hats –  Karakalpakstan, and saris in India of course.
Having just crossed the border from Myanmar, where more men than women wore long wrap around skirts called longees, it was a surprise to see in Thailand we’re back to western clothes and hair styles. If there’s a national costume, it seems to be the mini-skirt, at least for the ladies.
And the road traffic features fewer local oddities as seen in the ‘stans, India and Myanmar. On the wide main roads mostly modern vehicles travel at developed world speeds, unlike their western neighbours.
We knew that Thailand is more Westernised than its western neighbours but it felt rather disappointing. Although it is nice to dive into the frequent 7-11 or Tesco Lotus for chocolate milk shake and other goodies.
Gradually, like opening a Pandora’s box, we’ve uncovered Thailand’s unique delights.
Keen to keep off the main roads, we’ve, as often, relied upon the Garmin to weave us a route along the minor roads. At times this has lead to the occasional dirt track which has so far been well compacted and manageable. We drew the line at the ‘path’ where a narrow trail led off across the grass next to a field and luckily found an alternative track. (After all these month’s I’ve finally learnt how to scroll between visual maps on the Garmin and step by step written directions so we can now check out what delights our route has in store and reject  ‘bad track’ options.)
_CTF2661-1
It’s been along these minor roads that we’ve discovered Thailand’s delights. After crossing the border we were, as in India, in the midst of the sugar cane harvest. Then pineapple farms were a nice surprise followed by waterways where wooden longtail boats power past less sophisticated shacks bringing home the reality that economic development hasn’t reached every corner of Thailand.
Oh yes – another reason it’s a bit familiar – as you can see in a lot of these pictures, around week #3 in Thailand,  April got rather cloudy and rainy. In a way, that was a relief, as it wasn’t so hot and we could go further and faster. Air-con rooms meant we dried out overnight. But after a few days the heavy rain showers got tedious, and certainly the bikes’ gears and brakes didn’t appreciate them. 
Coconut palm plantations were another delight where we wove our way through small lanes between furrowed waterways densely planted with palm trees. The tall palms cut out the light giving it a real jungle feel with lots of birds calling from the under growth.  Homes are dotted amongst them where people busily welded machetes chopping off the husks and splitting the coconuts – milk one way , flesh another.
Markets, many floating in this maze of water ways, also have a few treasures. Frogs, half gutted of course, chickens feet, fresh or on the café menu, pig’s trotters or whole face if you’re feeling hungry, together with a large assortment of fish and shell fish, are now all available.
As well as the above we now have salt farms and fish farms. The latter in an array of inland lakes or with fishing huts out in the estuary, which add a different take on farming. Some we think may be shellfish or crayfish as the dug out pits whilst aeriated are quite shallow.
As we have cycled further south the dominant crop is coconut.  Unlike Myanmar where bamboo ladders were used to climb the tall trunks, here our primate cousins are exploited as it’s monkeys who agilely bound up the lofty heights. A bit of chewing, a bit of twisting and down thumps another husk while the owner, looking on, makes a few encouraging noises from the ground.
These harvesting teams travel about in style; monkeys are pillion passengers, in the shopping baskets or on the side-cars of motorbikes. It’s not the dog peering out of the utility trucks, monkeys are keen to see where they are going. On these rural roads the traffic is less like home – everyone seems to ride a small motorbike, almost all commercial traffic is in pickups, and there are the distinctive Thai open sidecars with a fringe on top.
The wildlife has also taken off. In Myanmar even the trekking guides carry catapults, so the wildlife needs to keep its head down. Thailand doesn’t seem to have that problem – and has many national parks – so we’ve seen a lot more. Also, now in southern Thailand, we’re definitely in a different ecosystem – tropical rainforest – even if a lot of it is replaced with monoculture palm or pineapple plantations and hotels. More about wildlife in the birds and beasties log (update coming soon).

 

Cheap As Chips?

A tiny blog posting – a Micropost!

I thought it would be interesting to see how the countries we pass through compare economically. Thanks to Wikipedia, it’s pretty easy.

Here’s a chart showing the Per Capita Income in each country we’ve passed through, or hope to pass through.

GDPUSD2015.png

And here’s the same chart, adjusted for the cost of living in each country (called Purchasing Power Parity, or  PPP).

PPPUSD2015

PPP seems to have the effect of making the people in middle-income states better off. And Singapore.

We can even divide one by the other, to give us a rough Cost of Living Cycling. However, this is a bit rubbish, as in most of Europe, costs were kept down by camping. From about Bulgaria/Romania onwards, it felt a bit insecure rough camping, and hot – we really appreciated the comfort of a shower, so mostly stayed in guesthouses and cheap hotels. In tourist cities, that was often pretty cheap, but out on the road, I would guess that it very often was close to $20/night for a room for the two of us, irrespective of country. So far the most expensive nights have been Uzbekistan ($70 for a yurt), India (~$70 for a tent, ~$40 for a palace (really it was, gorgeous)), and Myanmar ($50 at two of the hotels, trading on scarcity). Not normally regarded as high-cost locations. The Caspian Sea ferry was also an expensive night, but did cover a fair bit of ground as we slept. The Tajikistan Toyota Tour was by far our most expensive week, but wasn’t exactly integral to the trip. And it didn’t include the (cheap) guesthouses!

CostOfCycling

Turkey, Uzbekistan and India have been most costly for souvenirs, not because of prices, but because of the wonderful handicrafts, and their availability, and perhaps more stop days, and maybe the timing of Christmas.

End of micropost!

(Note to self – master spreadsheet stored on cloud, in case plans change!)

Hiking to Meet the Hill Tribes

Our public transport northwards in Myanmar ended in the town of Tsipaw (Hsipaw), Shan State. It’s a pleasant place, but the attraction there is as a base for hiking into the hills.
Myanmar isn’t exactly a unitary state. It used to be called Burma, reflecting the dominance of the Bamar people. Indeed, they were expanding quite an empire westwards in the early 1800s, until they met the East India Company expanding the other way, attacked, and came off worst. One reason the country’s name changed in 1989, was to be more inclusive of the other people’s the Bamar had (partially) subdued: the Shan, the Palaung, the Mon, and many others. So, hiking in this part of Shan State, we’d meet Shan people, and also Palaung people. Our guide, Aikethein, is a Palaung.
We’d been told our route would be across the fields in the morning heading up into the hills during the afternoon. No such luck. Barely across one field we started on our incline. The broad track occasionally opening out into panoramic views, eventually shrank into a ‘sheep’ trail across the steep edged hills winding it’s way up and down. We didn’t see any sheep, just a few motorbikes.
Forest paths wound over tree roots and rocks as we crunched through the leaf fall, passing cleared areas used for crops, often, at this time of year, burnt to clear them for the next growing season. Towards the end of the day, small plantations of tea bushes ranged up steeper slopes.
A small boy dancing from rock to rock  across the burbling brook, swiftly crouching to take aim, catapult in hand. The bird flew off as junior sprang into action again, for another shot. Aikethein fumbled in his bag seizing his catapult for a more experienced attempt. Peeyaang .. another shot flew out but still the bird fluttered away. We now know why we hear, but don’t see, birds in the forest.
We stopped in a Shan village for lunch, although at the house of a Palaung family. Shan and Palaung have their own languages, and the Palaung generally live higher up in the hills, where they grow tea. I nabbed the only chair, a small plastic garden chair the same as a few others on the veranda that stood next to the bamboo ‘deck chair’, the fomer probably for tourists when they arrived. Our food was on a circular low table in a large sparsely furnished room. Our hostess bustled away at a bit of sweeping keeping the room spotlessly clean once we had eaten. The small pile she had swept with her traditional handmade broom quickly disappeared down a lifted floor board to the ground 8 feet below – how neat was that!
The roomy houses are lovely. There’s stuff lying around showing just how much can be made out of bamboo and twine: hats, walls, plumbing, fences, gates, chairs, bridges, it’s endless. There are now some concrete houses, but most are a traditional chunky wood frame with bamboo mat walls. Sometime in the last 100 years, corrugated iron roofs replaced thatch in most cases. The light woven walls keep out the sun but provide ventilation.
The cuisine is one of the many things that defines each culture. We were first introduced to fermented tea leaf salad on the Myanmar International Airways plane where Gid tried it but declined a second helping. Here in the village, having done a days hike and with no other option, we both tucked in.
Aikethein was telling us that whilst the main ingredients may stay the same across regions of Myanmar the method of cooking them has slight changes from village to village. He pointed out that the food we were eating was less greasy than in Hsipaw which we agreed with. Sourbanyan tree leaves, cabbage soup, a solid  wad of steamed rice were three of the things on our supper table.
Manns Tan, a Palaung village, perched on the edge of the hillside, is a cluster of 15 houses. There are numerous children all keen to smack your hand in a high 5 greeting calling bye- bye, hello, tata. Relatively recently, the trails to it have been dug out to be passable by motorbike as well as horse. A motorbike can carry two 50Kg bags of rice, plus a bit else.
18km (11miles) walked. Mostly up, as we climbed to around 1000m, amongst small tea plantations and wandering water buffalo whose bells clonked musically as they browsed. Fortuitously, the buffalo don’t eat tea bushes. We noticed the Myanmar (SE Asian) water buffalo are indeed different from Indian.
Aikethein Taw was our guide. His village is 50 km away but is not accessible to foreigners because, like many places in Myanmar, there are civil, and not so civil, disputes between tribes fighting over the natural resources in the land. He left his village to move to the ‘city’ as he didn’t want to be a farmer, and has been guiding now for quite a few years. He has big ideas for more work in the growing tourist trade.
Aikethein is one of twelve siblings. Two of his brothers died from cocaine addiction, one from measles which in the last ten years is now immunized against.  In families where there are three male children one has to join the “army” (that is, the tribal militia, not the national army, whom they may fight). In villages where there are less than thirty children there is no formal education but children will often be sent to a nunnery or monastery at the age of six or seven and are free to leave when they like.

A Plain of Ancient Pagodas, Tops Peeking Through the Mist – Bagan

Bagan is famous for its plain of ancient pagodas and a ‘must see’ on the tourist trail in Myanmar. If you’ve only seen one photo of Myanmar, it’s probably Bagan.
We arrived with a couple of days in hand to do the circuit. The electronic version of the Lonely Planet guide, now downloaded on to my Kindle for every country we’re visiting, does an excellent job of outlining the key sights, so off we pedalled along with hoards of other tourists on rented e-bikes, each clutching the same tome.
Around 1100AD, this area was the centre of a growing kingdom, that converted to Buddhism, so enthusiastically that they went and raided all the Buddhist treasures from nearby kingdoms, and over about 250 years, built thousands of temples, pagodas, and stupas. Some very grand, many small, and anything in between. Since then, many have fallen into disrepair or been demolished by earthquakes. A few are restored, many are maintained, somewhat, and still used. The people who built them are largely forgotten, historians theorise they spent so much building temples that they were economically and militarily overtaken by neighbours. A few photos are at the bottom of this posting, but first, how we got lost in the country….

Lost

DSC_0649-3Around we trudged with a trail of others to all the top sights stealing a bit of respite from the heat in Bagan’s magnificent new Archaeological museum where we saw room after yet another large room displaying dozens of Buddha images, and some interesting cultural displays.
Day two we took a different approach. I hunted out a few of the lesser pagodas with a more interesting commentary. One had passages underground, a second had a ghost and promised excellent views; with a couple of others along the way our day was sorted.
The route connecting them was cross country on adjoining tracks. That’s where the fun started.
We’d had some experience of off road the night before when following our sunset viewing spot, another tourist ‘must do’, we had taken a short cut across the tracks to the main road, in the dark. The trails often disintegrate into sand and as our front wheels carved deep and the back wheel slides sideways we frequently came to an abrupt stand still.
In daylight, ‘map’ to hand, off we set. And we had GPS too, even Google maps, thanks to spending about a fiver on a Myanmar SIM card. All were useless, the tracks unrelated to the maps. The only thing that worked was: mark 1 – eyeball, the compass on Gid’s bike, and the sun. The sand track was big enough for a bus initially, indeed, there were several on it. Then it got a bit smaller, then smaller again, but fine for motorbikes and us. Then smaller still, really just a footpath across a field until it finally petered out altogether. We walked the bikes along the field edge, heading north, towards the road. Beckoned by a farmer tending his field, we pushed through a sort of hedge to regain a track across a field. Finally, we got back to something navigable. Whose plan was that?

Temples of Bagan

And we found a yard of abandoned carriages – two wheelers are still widely used for tours, but these bigger jobs are discarded. A B&W treatment seems to work nicely for these.

Alternative transport tried and tested

On leaving Yangon airport, after our flight from India, it was like stepping back into normality albeit with a sauna full on. The taxi had four – count them – wheels, and four – listen – cylinders, real springs, and the driver’s style had only a soothing effect on our blood pressure. Other cars travelled along marked lanes with the occasional brief hoot as we listened to the purr of motor car engines. Motorbikes are banned! Buses cruised along. All very orderly and blissfully peaceful. Melodic bird song returned to our ears.
The city itself was, by comparison, clean, although as we explored further we found many similarities with India: crowds, street vendors, wires draped along the buildings and criss-crossing the streets, surface drainage channels and food stalls filling the pavement. But no cows, no hasslers, and the wares now carried on shoulder poles. And did we mention, no hooting? We visited quietly busy pagodas and restocked on memory cards and a few bike bits.
Our plan for Myanmar was designed to show us some of the country, bearing in mind that we’d flown into almost the “end” of it, near the Thai border. So, we used alternative transports to backtrack about halfway up the country, back towards the border with India. Not that riverboats or Myanmar trains go much faster than a bicycle, but they do keep going for longer and don’t collapse from exhaustion.
Decidedly top heavy, perched on a one metre wide gauge, the sleeper train from Yangon to Bagan lurched and jolted along, frequently caterpillar style whilst wobbling from side to side. Sharing the carriage with Anton from Germany and the many bugs and mosquitoes, left us all with ample space but the mossies seemed rather greedy. Gid resorted to a bug net overnight, carefully tucking me in as well. Lurching along in the train we were submerged in village life: fields being watered or tended to, traffic waiting for us to pass, children, and those young at heart, keen to wave. Vendors tempted us with their wares peering into our gaping windowless chasms, other locals sat just biding their time or peeking from behind their doors but all were near to be seen.
The river boat from Bagan to Mandalay was not as interesting as the train trip from Yangon to Bagan. Bustling along the river that was  a good half mile wide, despite winding our way back and forth avoiding the shallows, we were rarely in touch with the people. Dancing dots on the horizon appeared to be children playing on the bank. Others were attending laundry or fishing nets, just distinguishable in the distance. Photos taken require dramatic cropping to give a feel of the people and scenery around us. River traffic trundled past but was frequently industrialized; clearly not from the villages that periodically line the banks.
On the boat itself there was an on going game of musical chairs as views versus the sun battled for the prized seats first facing one way then the other.  With about 20 tourists aboard (and one local passenger), there was a chance for some chat. Especially as Nicolas and Elise were also cycle touring. Navigating through the sand banks that were intermittently marked, was highly technical.  Two people stood on the bow of the boat elegantly welding depth gauge poles, arm actions directing the helmsman left or right.
Motorbikes are banned only in Yangon, elsewhere in Myanmar they are ubiquitous. Like India, they’re all small, if a little newer in design. Unlike India, there’s an assumption of observation, and a concept of right of way,  so hooters are used sparingly. Sometimes one can hear a motorbike approaching by the voices of the people on it! We’re still trying to take this on, after immersion in India for three months. In Mandalay, it was our voices, as we took motorbike taxis at one point. They also gave us helmets, but had they just got their motorbikes and wanted to practice? The two times we went on the back of Indian’s bikes, helmetless and three up, admittedly in the middle of nowhere, the riders were much smoother and assured, whereas our Mandalay taxis, two times two up, felt a bit wobbly and less secure. Were we paying for their learner petrol?
Our second train trip, Mandalay to Tsipaw, notable for two feats of engineering back in the early 1900s, was also marked by higher levels of sophistication seen in the farming. Although still mainly small scale stuff with every last patch of fertile land cultivated,  the watering cans on shoulders and the ox ploughs had been replaced by rotavators, hose pipes, sprinklers systems and strimmers.
Unbelievably the train jolted to a halt then went backwards. It was plenty slow enough surely it didn’t need to cover some bits twice. It gradually became obvious; as day was breaking we could see the track layers beneath us. We were gaining height up the side of a mountain onto a plateau, the train can’t do hairpin bends, so it had to switch direction for each zig or zag. A panoramic view opened up before us, lined with receding hills.
The second spectacular event was marked by people peering out of the windows and cries of, ‘There it is’. Fleeting glimpses developed into a full view until the train stopped just before we curved round to cross the Goteik Gorge viaduct. Crowds clambered down onto the track for a better view framing the ‘must take’ photographs.
Think that’s about covered it: Plane, taxi (4 wheels), train, riverboat, motorbike, train. Oh and then  in Tsipaw, tuk tuk, hiking, and in Lyaung Shwe, long tail boat.

May your God be with you

‘Safe journey, may your God be with you’ were the parting words of one Indian gentleman we have spoken to.

We got used to the high profile of religion in Turkey. Our first experience was in Kirklareli, where an Imam very kindly welcomed us into the mosque, explaining the symbolism on the walls and the practise of Muslims. The frequent calls to prayer and tidal rush of men accompanied us across the country.
In Indian, the birth place of four now global religions (Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism) where, by law, Indians have a freedom of choice,  religious practice is all around us. Red ribbons mark a sacred tree and shrines, erected in the smallest of stone hearths, are placed at seemingly random places along the road, desert and countryside. On a bigger scale there are frequently larger shrines and full sized temples in and around villages and towns. These are usually brightly decorated with incense and flowers around the deity being worshipped with plenty of places to buy these things nearby.
On the way to Ranakpur, to see the famous Jain temple, a man passing us on his motorbike guessed where we were heading but was very insistent that we should see his village’s temple. 5 km down the road he was waiting for us to arrive, eager to point out ‘his’ temple which turned out to be a couple of flags placed on a hill sized rock.
Later, another proud villager sped after us on a motorbike imploring us to rethink our hasty transit as ‘his’ temple was not to be missed. It had been quite impressive to have such a grand building in such a small village but it appeared to be of a similar structure to many we have already seen on our route across India and time was running short. We very guiltily continued on our way.
It’s not uncommon to start the waking process at 6 am with an hour of chanting which can give way to a lengthy session of ‘random’ bell ringing or drum thumping which can be followed by the call to prayer enabling many Indians to start their day with worship.
At numerous other times along our way we have been accompanied by banging and crashing as a religious service takes place. Occasionally a procession escorts a highly decorated truck that emits, from its loud speakers, volumes of thumping music. It all seems to add to the general melee of high noise level the Indians don’t appear to notice.
At the other end of the scale there are many silent almost fleeting gestures. Another moment to be noted was when our bus, on the way to Bimbetka, stopped for the conductor to leap out and purchase a garland of flowers. On passing the sacred river Narmada the bus stopped while the man placed the garland on a roadside shrine. On our return trip the bus slowed while a coconut and garland of flowers were thrown into the river demonstrating a religious side to the maniac bus drivers who invariably scream along the roads with horns blaring.
At Maheshwar, on the sacred river, we stayed for a couple of days to again visit temples. Late one afternoon we took a boat trip out towards Baneshwar temple.  The oarsman wasn’t fussed about us actually landing on the tiny island but set off up river to a religious ceremony taking place at the water’s edge. Singing and playing, accompanied by setting afloat candles in tiny dishes to create a light trail as they drifted off down river, made a magical moment in the fading light.
Washing in sacred water, to cleanse both body and soul, are very much are part of the Hindu tradition. Many Hindus make at least one pilgrimage to a sacred water site in their life time. On foot, with a knap sack, often wearing something orange and sometimes with no shoes, they are a frequent and unmistakable sight, especially as we approached the sacred places. One, we came across in the middle of nowhere, having just explained that he was on foot, to our amusement, jumped on the back of a passing motorbike and sped off ahead of us.
We’ve followed the course of the Narmada crossing it several times observing shrines, religious practice and places of pilgrimage. The marble rocks on the Narmada at Bheraghat, and Pushkar’s sacred lake, that originated from a lotus petal, are two such places but none are more important than Varanasi. Situated on the Ganges Varanasi is one of India’s seven sacred cities and of major importance in the passage of life and death in Hinduism. It is here, in a ceremony on the river bank, that the cycle of rebirth can be broken releasing the person from the caste system and setting their soul free. The ‘burning ghat’, as it is known, is ablaze 24 hrs. as the public cremations take place.

Varanasi is one of three sacred cities in India where aarti takes place. Aarti is a ceremony performed by priests, where fire is sacrificed to the Goddess Ganga, and a number of other deities.