Monday, 28 March 2011


Friday 11 March: First reserving the last seat on Tuesday's Indian Pacific to Sydney I walk the two miles from Parklands interstate rail terminal to the city centre. I'm lucky to stay four nights in the YHA as this is the city's busiest weekend: Adelaide Fringe festival is being held throughout the city, the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) festival is underway in Botanic Park and the Adelaide Cup runs on monday. After a quick look at the central market I take a stroll through in the pretty Botanic Garden wafted over by WOMAD music and flocks of squawking Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. I end the day quaffing various red wines and listening to an awful electric rock band in the Exeter Hotel.
Saturday 12: Following an interesting free tour of the Botanic Garden I spend most of the day relaxing and reading in the rose garden while listening to some very good music courtesy of the WOMAD festival just over the fence. Adjacent is the National Wine Centre which looks interesting but it's just closing as I get there, another time. Sunday 13: I primarily wanted to visit the South Australian Museum to see fossils of the Earth's earliest animal, a 550 million years old headed organism, first discovered in 1946 by Reg Sprigg in the Ediacara Hills, part of nearby Flinder's Range. In addition to seeing Spriggina I'm delighted to learn that Reg's discovery of Precambrian animal fossils has now led to a whole new geological period being created, the Ediacaran, unknown when I studied geology in the 1980s. There is also a large Ammonite fossil the size of a truck-tyre and beautiful Belemnites and other shelled-creatures fossilised by opal - not only an opal but also a fossil, priceless. The metal and mineral collections are also stunning, as is the Aboriginal gallery and the older style Pacific Islands gallery complete with decorated human heads from Papa New Guinea.
Monday 14: Walking along Rundel Mall past the Mall's balls and coins embedded in the paving slabs I find my way to the green belt with views of the city back across the river Torrens. The free city centre tram takes me south to see the fountains and statues of Victoria Square before dinner and an early night.
Tuesday 15: Vast wheatfields give way to sparse sheepland, above the rust-red sand, bright green from the recent rains. In the hills of Flinder's Range a pair of Emu sprint away from the rumbling train, but still no Kangaroos. We are running two-hours late so only stop briefly at Broken Hill, pity. As night falls I'm entertained by two Sydney guys in the dining car both working hard to dispel Monty Python spawned preconceptions of Australians (and I thought they were all called Bruce). We discuss the harsh state alcohol laws and I discover that 'pokies' are fruit machines and kangaroos are inactive during the heat of the day.
Wednesday 16: As dawn lights the western slopes of the misty Blue Mountains the Indian Pacific climbs to the line's summit before winding it's way down past the wooded sandstone crags of Lithgow and Katoomba, slowly downhill to the Sydney Basin.
Photos of Adelaide.

Perth to Adelaide on the Indian Pacific

Wednesday 9 March: One of the world's greatest railway trips, this three-day trans-continental journey across the vast Nullarbor Plain bisects this great expanse of Australian landscape. Taking my seat in India Pacific's (81st mode of transport) Red economy-class we depart promptly at 11:30am, the arable farmland turning quickly into sheep country which in turn gives way to a glorious landscape of strange twisted trees and shrubs - we are now in the outback. As dusk falls I realise I've been in Australia for eight day and still haven't seen a kangaroo - where are they all hiding? At 9:30 we arrive in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia's main gold-mining centre and, as we are stopping here for a couple of hours, I opt for Indian Pacific's 'whistlestop' tour of the area. I've been told it is also known as 'Kalgoorlie Brothel Tour', something the brochure fails to mention, we'll see. The gold rush started here in 1893, but today the picks and shovels of old have been replaced by giant Caterpillar haul-trucks and a 'Super-pit' open cast gold mine, a massive hole in the ground that cuts through many of the old pick and shovel workings and tunnels. Incredibly, all the town's drinking water is piped here from Perth but for those who prefer something stronger there are thirty hotels, three-hundred bars, most with 'skimpy barmaids', and three brightly-lit licenced bordellos where you can take a one-hour brothel tour for AU$30 (about 20 GBP). More intimate time in the company of a little lady of the night starts at ten times this figure, plus 'extras' (the mind boggles).
Thursday 10: Low scrub as far as the eye can see all morning is replaced by low trees and bushes all afternoon. At midday we stop for a two-hour break at the deserted township if Cook which now has only three inhabitants solely there to service the needs of, the mostly freight, locomotives. Unusually, in Australia, freight traffic takes priority over passenger trains which explains the extended, but timetabled, halts.
Photos, Perth to Adelaide on the Indian Pacific.

Sunday, 27 March 2011


Friday 4 March: The TransWA bus takes me to Pemberton but it's a holiday weekend and I can only book in for tonight. The tourist office lady tries hard but the town is full and even the most expensive motel has no vacancies.
Saturday 5: A brisk walk takes me into the forest park where I catch sight of some pretty little Rainbow Lorikeets and Crimson Rosellas. I don't even have time to scale the Gloucester 'climbing' tree before rushing back to catch the bus to Bunbury. Margaret River is also full so sadly, without visiting any vineyards, I head back to Perth.
Photos of Pemberton.

Friday, 25 March 2011


Wednesday 2 March: My first view of Perth's skyline was from the ship, now it's close up and tactile. Central Perth is a modern shopping-centre based around the train station with the state library, cultural area and bars just north in lively Northbridge. I'm booked into Perth City youth hostel which is comfortable and modern with a bar, splash pool and well equipped kitchen. This week there are several tasks I need to complete. Food shopping and mailing various packages home: diaries, keepsakes, CDs from the main post office in the large Regency Commonwealth building. I end the day in a British bar paying $11 (about 7 GBP) for a pint of English bitter - exchange-rate robbery.
Thursday 3: The Austrail pass I buy today covers nearly all of Australia's rail network for a three month period, from Perth in the west to Sydney in the east, Melbourne in the south to Darwin and Cairns in the north. At AU$747.52 (about 470 GBP) it's a geat deal for overseas visitors. I want to go to Sydney but unfortunately I can only reserve a seat as far as Adelaide, that will have to do. I must see some of Perth so take the ferry across the Swan river to north Perth for fine views back to the city. Various riverside bars look inviting but I press on to the Medicare centre to apply for a reciprocal NHS healthcare card. Sunday 6: Grabbing a Perth walking map, off I go to find places of interest between the modern boring facades. St Mary Cathedral is quiet and restful and there's a pretty old fire station is nearby, the slender bell tower is a modern city icon and I end up climbing Jacob's ladder to the Botanical Park with views back across the Swan river. In the evening I find an old pinball machine in one of the Northbridge bars, I didn't know these still existed. Tuesday 8: I finally get a bed back at the Central YHA after spending three nights in rather less salubrious accommodation elsewhere.
Photos of Perth.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The MSC Basel to Australia

Saturday 19 February: After a quick lunch I'm picked-up at Singapore's delightful art deco station by the shipping agent and delivered to Pasir Panjang container terminal, a massive industrial-sized port complex, with gigantic gantry cranes that make the twenty and forty-foot long containers look like matchboxes. I meet another passenger and we join the MSC Basel (80th mode of transport)bound for Freemantle, Perth's harbour in Western Australia.
The officers are Russian: Master Terekhov, 1st Mate Zubkov, 2nd Mate Tyunin, 3rd Mate Seveljov, Ship's Cook Frolov, 2nd Engineer Gordeev, 3rd Engineer Bovtach and Electrical Officer Kondratev. Frank Jaepel, the only other passenger, is from east Germany and most of the twenty-strong crew are from Kiribati, an island nation in the central tropical South Pacific.
Passenger accommodation is on deck 3, Frank is in the 'Owner's' cabin on the starboard side and I'm in the 'Super Cargo' cabin to port, both suites are identical mirror images. The small outdoor ocean-water swimming pool is on deck 4, the officers mess, pantry and galley are on deck 1, the gym, sauna and laundry are two decks below that. We have the run of the ship when at sea but, for safety reasons, are restricted to the cabin tower when in port. The 45,696 ton Basel is a medium sized freighter 707,523 feet in length. We are told that sailing is delayed until Monday and we can go ashore all day tomorrow if we wish. At night the port is beautifully lit by the glimmering flames of a gas processing plant on Singapore's eastern coast.
Sunday 20: I only go ashore to buy an electrical adaptor to suit the German built vessel then return to stock my fridge from the ship's bond which Captain Terekhov kindly opens early for thirsty passengers.
Monday 21: When I awake we are at sea with no land in sight and Frank and I explore the main-deck in bright sunshine.
Tuesday 22: Sailing under the single star and red-stripped Liberian flag out of Monrovia we dock at Jakarta at 1:00am. Loading and unloading carries on throughout the night and we depart Jakarta at 4:00pm. The 2nd Mate has had a good time as he's found a new lap-dance club with three dancers and has only spent US$100 all afternoon.
Wednesday 23: I finish reading A Question of Honor, Lynne Olson's and Stanley Cloud's account of the RAF's Polish Kosciuszko Squadron, a quite enlightening insight into the Battle of Britain and beyond.
Thursday 24: We are approaching Australian waters so I settle my bar bill (Becks beer 24x0.33L, cask red wine 3L and salted peanuts), just twenty-four euro and we spend the evening watching the glorious sunset from the poolside.
Friday 25: In the morning the engines stop. Lifeboat drill is delayed for four-hours for engine repairs, I've been wondering why we've been steaming so slowly. In the evening I finish reading Lama Yeshe's Make Your Mind an Ocean and pick up Miles Horden's 2002 title Voyaging the Pacific, a single-handed yachtsman's view of the ocean.
Saturday 26: We see wildlife for the first time today: flying fish, swooping birds and Frank's resident 'albatross' perched on the foredeck which I later identify as a Red-footed Booby.
Sunday 27: The ship is in blackout for engine wielding so no electricity or hot water for several hours. I finish reading Horden's book engaged by the ocean moods he describes.
Monday 28: In the early dawn we pass Perth and approach Freemantle where we will lay at anchor in the lea of Rottness Island to await docking on Tuesday.
In the afternoon 2nd Engineer Gordeev gives us a fascinating, and relatively quiet, tour of the ship's engine rooms. From the air-conditioned computerised control room, unusually, at main-deck level to the six-bore heavy-fuel main engine and from the fuel refining and heating systems to the fresh-water generating and cooling systems. The twenty-one thousand horsepower main engine uses fifty-tons of fuel a day at 'economic speed' and seventy-two tons at top speed. The seas have been clement and we have been on economic speed the whole trip so at two-hundred dollars a ton for fuel he's made quite a saving.
Tuesday 1 March: We sail into Freemantle passing the black-hulled Queen Elizabeth liner on her moorings and we are in Australia. The small town centre is jam-packed with cruise liner passengers so, after a quick beer and via an ATM, we board a city train to Perth.
Pictures of the MSC Basel.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Yangon to Singapore

Sunday 13 February: A quick spin around the National Museum (no photos) and a beer in the quite splendid front-bar of the Strand Hotel, the best of the old colonial watering holes, to say goodbye to Rangoon.
Monday 14: Last minute shopping for pirate CDs and an early night.
Tuesday 15: Flight to, and overnight stop in, Bangkok where I'm devastated to discover that all sleepers south to Butterworth are fully booked (it's half moon party time in the south), I can only get a sleeper as far as Hat Yai.
Wednesday 16: So, from Bangkok it's the 3:10pm Special Express Sleeper south to Hat Yai.
Thursday 17: Arriving at 9:00am I spend a day in Hat Yai then have a seat only on the 4:00pm overnight train to Kuala Lumpur.
Friday 18: Arriving at 5:40am I have a long day in Kuala Lumpur shopping then take a berth on the 11:00pm night train to Singapore.
From Yangon to Singapore photos.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Golden Rock

Friday 11 February: Mr Tun Tun is true to his word and I change pick-ups twice before reaching Kinpun, each driver paying the next one my fare (the total for the 4-hour trip is 4,000 kyats, about fifty-pence). Sea Sar Guesthouse is hunky-dory and I book-in, have lunch and jump on the back of a tipper-truck (79th mode of transport) laden with excited pilgrims for the steep ride up to Golden Rock, the Burmese Buddhist's 'Mecca'. From the truck stop it's a half-hours uphill walk to the summit. The rich and infirm are carried some of the up in sedan chairs. The devout and the fit walk - it's a great walk. Golden Rock balances precariously on a rocky outcrop and is believed to be held in place by a single strand of Buddha's hair that stops it tumbling down into the valley below. It's highly revered and only men can approach it.
Saturday 12: I've heard that elections are being held so feel less guilty taking a pick-up truck to Kyaikhto's little train station for an upper-class seat on express train 36 to Yangon's ornate central station.
Golden Rock photos.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


Thursday 10 February: Staying at the Emperor Hotel I aim to avoid government fees by taking Mr Tun Tun's motorcycle tour of the town's sights and, with his son is driving, we set off early before the ticket offices open. Most of Bago's Buddhist buildings are new, large and well loved. Kyaikpun Pagoda is a huge square pillar with four back-to-back sitting Buddhas towering above you. At Shwethayaung Pagoda a massive reclining Buddha, with 10ft long fingers, rests on a pillow of jewels. Here we meet up with Mr Tun Tun for breakfast (he's checking I'm happy with his son's tour) then we stroll around a placid pond to a new reclining Buddha. The small birds perching on his neck are dwarfed by his very serene face and massive ears.
Whitewashed Mahazedi Paya has an unusual feature, a tunnel flanked with golden Buddhas runs around the outside wall. From here it's a long ride north-east to see monk's at lunch - we are late so just catch them leaving the dining hall - an old one stops for a brief chat and to wish me well. Nearby is Snake Monastery where a large well-fed anaconda, believed to be the reincarnation of a famous monk, is lavished by 1,000 kyat note donations. We break for lunch.
Late in the afternoon Mr Tun Tun's son picks me up at the hotel to see the town's crowning jewel - Shwemawdaw Pagoda. It's taller than the one in Yangon and only slightly less impressive - glittering gold about to be protected from the sun by a basket-weave of wooden scaffolding wrapped in a swathe of orange cloth.
Back at the hotel I pay Mr Tun Tun US$10 (exactly the price of the government fees I've avoided) which he gives to his son (I'm only his second tourist pillion rider and his eyes gleam). They will meet me tomorrow morning, buy me breakfast and hail me, at local prices, a pick-up truck to Kinpun, Kyaikhto and Golden Rock. Nice man.
Photos of Bago.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


Sunday 6 February: A pony-and-trap ride from the boat jetty takes me to May Kha Lar guesthouse in the centre of the bustling town of Ngaung U, where most independent travellers hang their backpacks. The US$10 government entrance fee to the temple area is unavoidable here as it's collected at hotel registration. Your glossy Bagan Archaeological Zone pass is then issued, but never subsequently checked.
Monday 7: Hiring a bike I take the 2-mile ride to the main temple sites at Old Bagan. Despite the military junta ignoring original architectural styles and haphazardly restoring buildings using modern materials the temple fields at Bagan are just wonderful. Ananda Phaya is splendid with an elegant golden stupa and four standing Buddhas with fingers in a circle (similar to the okay sign), the posture of imparting fearlessness. The older stumpier Thatbyinnya Phaya is next, where hawkers sell their wares of fine artwork and local laquerware. Bupaya's small single stupa, on the river bank, is said to be the oldest but now looks new, completely restored military junta fashion.
Cycling a mile or so further south I reach Manuhar Paya with statues of bell carrying monks and a wonderfully oversized reclining Buddha cramped in a small hall. Back towards Old Bagan is the tall Shwe San Taw Paya with great views across the temple fields, there are thousands of stupas and structures.
At lunch I meet up again with Sharon and Alex, an Irish-Italian couple (who I sailed down the Irrawaddy with yesterday) and we spend the afternoon cycling, mostly on dirt roads, to some of the more remote sites - Dhammayangyi Paya is the largest with delightful twin Buddhas, fingertips touching the ground the in the posture of linking with earth or calling the earth to witness - Sulamani Guphaya is next inside gated walls, then Thabeik Hmauk where we climb to the upper terraces relaxing for a spell amid the templescape. As the stupa shadows grow tall I head back in the dim light of dusk leaving Alex and Sharon to enjoy the sunset.
Tuesday 8: Guarded by white lions Shwezigon Paya, in Nyuang U, is a glimmering golden stupa-topped pyrimid, a wonderful working monastery of red-robed monks and pink-gowned nuns. After lunch I take a pony-and-trap, out of town, to Htilominlo Guphaya-gyi on the main road then walk through fields to Bu-le-thi to catch the sunset.
Wednesday 9: Overnight bus south, to Yangon, then north again for a couple of hours to Bago.
Photos of Bagan.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Pyin U Lwin (Maymyo)

Thursday 3 February: From Mandalay I'm heading north on a shared pick-up truck to the old British hill station of Maymyo (now called Pyin U Lwin). The town's Purcell Tower was a gift from Queen Victoria and the clock chimes are said to match those of London's Big Ben. I wander to the outscirts of town to see the stately colonial mansion of the Candacraig Hotel, made famous in Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar, but at US$36 a night it's slightly over my budget. Walking back to town I climb the six-storey Pagoda of Chan Tak Buddhist temple with views down to the temple's ornate gardens.
In the evening, after a few glasses of strawberry wine, I have a fitfull sleep, the Purcell Tower's chimes, just opposite my bedroom window, do match Big Ben's in frequency if, not quite, in volume.
Friday 4: Pick-up truck to Mandalay, local bus to overnight at Monya with sunset the river.
Saturday 5: Bus to overnight at Pakokku for downstream ferry to the temples of Bagan.
Photos of Pyin U Lwin.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Saging Hill and U Bein's Bridge

Wednesday 2 February: Hiring a bike in Mandalay I peddle south to for a couple of hours and across the the old British bridge to Saging Hill for great, if hazy, views back over the Irrawaddy river and surrounding plains. On the way back through pretty countryside I take a detour to U Bein's Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. It's lovely to stroll across above the lake and engoy the slow pase of rural and monastic life.
Pictures of Saging Hill and U Bein's Bridge.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


Monday 31 January: The brown dust of the country roads is replaced by the exhaust fumes that hang over the city. In just one day the colour of my shirt collar matches my snot - black. The old walled and moated Royal Palace is spectacular with Mandalay Hill and the foremost temples at it's northeast corner. It takes me an hour to walk around the palace and another half-hour for the barefoot climb to the top of the hill. Two large lions guard the entrance to the hill and the shaded ascent has pleasant resting places and good view across the temples, palace and hazy city rooftops.
Tuesday 1 February: A long morning stroll south takes me to In Bin Kyaung, a beautiful teak temple, on a bend in the river. Walking back I drop into the Moustache Brother's home and have a chat with Lu Maw, brother number two, of this famous Mandalay comedy troupe. They have always included anti-government material in their act and two of the brothers have been imprisoned for it - five years hard labour each, but their performance continued. Lu Maw invites me to this to see them perform in their front room in the evening and I promise I'll return.

The Golden Palace Monastery is a more touristy teak temple with government admission fee. I give it a miss and locals usher me into Maha Lokamarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda through a side gateway. The temple holds the world's biggest book. It's inscribed on 729 marble tablets each with a small temple erected over it - what a wonderful creation.
The Moustache Brothers are restricted to performing within their own home in English only and are under scrutiny from the secret police, so no Burmese are in the audience. It's a delightful evening, the best show I've ever seen in a living room. My donation for the performance is US$10 which is exactly the fee I saved by not visiting the palace which was rebuilt using forced convict labour.
Photos of Mandalay.

Saturday, 5 March 2011


Sunday 30 January: Arriving in Mandalay in the early morning darkness I have time, after a hot shower and a boiled-egg breakfast, to catch the 9:00am boat to Mingun. We board the tiny wooden ferry with a captain and one crewman, a wiry old man who's job is to constantly bale out water from the leaky skiff which is filling up only slightly quicker than he can bale.
The main sight is the massive unfinished stupa of Mingun Paya, earthquake cracked and crumbling. The government charge a three dollar 'renovation fee' to climb it. I do not believe this fee goes towards any renovation at all so, for a small donation, I climb the nearby whitewashed Mya Thein Dan Pagoda instead for similar hazy views over the Irrawaddy river.
The largest intact bell in the world (the larger bell in Moscow is cracked), intended for Mingun Paya, hangs in a simple building next door. Both monks and tourists duck inside the bell to feel the full effects of its tone.
Back in Mandalay my foot is still painful so I take a cycle trishaw (78th mode of transport) back to the hotel for an early night.
Pictures of Mingun.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Burma: Yangon (Rangoon)

Thursday 27 January: Motherland Inn, north of the city centre, is an easy choice - they have a free courtesy bus from the airport - the taxi fare is 10US$, the same price as a single room. Three weeks later for my return trip the room rate (including airport transfer) is increasing to 13US$ - the curse of Lonely Planet.
Most of the city's colonial buildings are unloved, decaying and crumbling. This is a poor country made poorer by its military dictatorship. I thought long and hard before deciding to visit Burma (called Myanmar by the ruling junta) but my style of travel puts much needed money in people's hands and very little in the greedy paws of the generals. I'm staying in family run guesthouses, eating in local restaurants and travelling mostly by private transport (sadly, the state operated railways levy a heavy 'tax' for foreigners), this will be an interesting trip.
Friday 28: A gentle stroll along Kandawgyi Lake leads me to the magnificent Shwedagon Paya (temple), Burma's finest. When early British explorers reported 'mountains of gold' this is what they saw. Sixty-tons of gold plate covering the upper stupa make it gleam brightly in the sun, but that's not all. Above the cone is wind vane encrusted with jewels which is topped by a single sparkling diamond.
Spending most of the day here relaxing and reading I'm approached by Yen-Suyata, a young monk from the Mon area (a monk must speak to you first, not the other way round), and for several hours we discuss the virtues of Buddhist thought. He's been studying for only a year and is impressed by my knowledge and that I've been to Bodhgaya in modern day India, the place of Buddha's enlightenment. He explains, as only a novice can, the difficulties and rewards of meditation, something I must try. We leave mid-afternoon before the tourist hoards arrive for sunset.
Saturday 29: Changing large sums of money, illegally, on the black market is always tense, but as the exchange rate is so much better than the bank rate (and it circumvents the government) I feel I must try. Everything goes surprisingly smoothly in a dimly lit corner of the central market and I've swapped a crisp one-hundred dollar bill for 85,000 Kyats (pronounced chats) in one-thousand Kyats notes, quite a bundle. When I get fifteen pages photocopied from my guide book it costs 100 Kyats (about 10 pence in total) but they can't change my 1,000 Kyats note, the country's largest bill. This is an inexpensive and trustworthy country to travel in. Next, I reserve a seat on the night bus to Mandalay. Following a busy morning I enjoy lunch at Monsoon restaurant set in a colonial style house then relax near the river in Botahtaung Paya before catching the night bus to Mandalay.
Photos of Yangon (Rangoon).