Photographer's Guide to Petra
One of the highlights of visiting the Middle East is a trip to Petra. Inhabited since ancient times, Petra is a complex of rock-carved Nabatean structures nestled among a network of magnificent gorges. As a world heritage sight, the image of Petra's iconic Treasury has travelled the globe and is instantaneously recognized. But like many wonders of the world, it is quite something to behold with your own eyes. Trying to do this much photographed site justice also poses some challenges to the avid photographer, so here are some tips for you!
1. The elements:
One of the biggest challenges of photographing Petra is the sheer distances in combination with the middle eastern climate. The complex is vast and so much more than just the oft photographed treasury.. When temperatures can soar to over 40'c, as it did when I was there in May, this can prove to be a daunting physical task. So brace yourself for the elements: - wear good shoes, bring sunscreen, bring a hat, plenty of water, snacks to keep you going and even an umbrella for some much needed shade. Who would have thought that my little umbrella was probably the best item I brought with me on my trip to the sun drenched middle east? There are locals who will tempt you with horse rides and donkey treks, some of which they say are free. Nothing is free and a generous tip is required. I am not sure on the ethics of using these animals as concerns have been raised with respect to their welfare. So brace yourself for a tough physical day that will be justly rewarded with amazing photography.
The complex opens at 6 am but double check these times as they are known to change throughout the year. I can not stress enough how important it is to get there early. You will be rewarded with an empty world heritage site that is yours to photograph with very few tourists (if any) around to get in your way. Another bonus of this early departure time is that the sun is much gentler. The hiking itself is not the issue, rather it is the mid day heat that can make Petra unbearable. So get there early!
The classic shot of the Treasury faces east so if you want to get direct light on this site, you must do so on the first half of the day. It will take about 45 min from the entrance to hike up to the vantage point where you can photograph the site. Take note that the locals will, for a fee of course, take you on an illegal short cut to another vantage point. This route will take you about 10 minutes to hike up. However remember that it was much much more crowded, not sanctioned by UNESCO, ridden with selfie engrossed instagrammers. You will also miss out on some of the glorious views on the official route including a breathtaking view overlooking the amphitheatre.. Check with a local with respect to the actual time that the sun will hit the treasury. I was there in late May and the sun did not reach the bottom of the Treasury till 930/10 am. I spent a few hours watching and photographing this site as it slowly bathed itself in sunlight and I don't regret a second of this. So slow down and enjoy.
The afternoon light allows time for photographing the Royal Tombs., the amphitheatre, the street facades and if you can make it all the way out to the Monastery.
The Siq can be photographed all day long as it changes colour depending on the angle of the sunlight. I got some great shots during the late afternoon when the crowds started to thin and the local bedouins charged their horse-drawn carriages around beautifully coloured rocks. The Siq was also hauntingly beautiful in the early morning when NO ONE was around.
Closing time for Petra also seems to be a suggestion so I wouldn't rush to leave. Crowds are thinned out and lighting is nice in the late afternoon. Not to mention the relentless heat lets up. In fact, on the nights when Petra has its night tours, take your time leaving the compound. You will get to see the Siq lined up with candle lights for free. as you make your way out.
I had a two day pass for Petra. I could have easily spent another day there..
Given the sheer distances to cover and the need for plenty of hydration, you want to pack smart. I did not bring a tripod as there are plenty of places to prop your camera on for a makeshift tripod. I brought two lenses for the day - my tilt shift and my 24-105 Zoom lens.. I probably should have brought a wide angle lens and maybe a telephoto for shots of the locals. I brought a polarizing filter, back up battery, and an extra memory card. It will be a long trek back to your hotel if you forget anything so double check before you leave. Take note that there are only a few pay toilets and the food selection is not ideal. There is no limit on equipment and no restrictions on use of tripods.
4. Look Around:
Though the sites themselves are spectacular to behold, what I enjoyed photographing far more was all the ad-hoc activities and side hustles from the local bedouin tribe that runs this place.. So look around - look up, look down and look all around. (Also listen for horse hoofs and move aside...). There is so much more to photograph other than the architectural sites. I really enjoyed talking to the locals who were very friendly once they realized it was not your first or even tenth rodeo. Some are incredibly photogenic but always ask first before taking a portrait.
5. Petra Night Tours:
Twice a week, you have to opportunity to visit Petra at night. It is not cheap and after a full day on your feet you have to ask yourself is it worth it. Reviews online were mixed. My travel companions who did go see it at night would argue that it was not the best. Given I did not have a my tripod which would have been imperative, given I generally hate crowds and that my legs were aching from a full day on my feet, I did not do it and I honestly don't regret my decision. From my reading if you do go you have to race to get there ahead of the crowds, time is limited, and they light it up with all sorts of weird colours. You are however out of the scorching sun and are able to take that iconic picture of the candle lit Treasury. However, my best pictures from this trip are not the generic landscape ones. This has been done a thousand times before. I always try to find something new or a different angle when photographing an icon. But then again, you never know where your next great shot will be found so I generally encourage trying anything once.
Photographing Paro Taktsang
One of the highlights on any trip to Bhutan is a visit to the Tiger's Nest Monastery. This breathtaking structure is also known as Paro Taktsang and is perched tentatively off the cliffs overlooking Paro valley. It is a sacred Himalayan Buddhist site first built in 1692, though a series of fires have required several rounds of restoration. A cluster of temples have been built up around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) is said to have meditated for 3 years, 3 months , 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours. I think he liked the number 3. This Guru was credited at introducing Buddhism to Bhutan. The site gets it's name "Tiger's Nest" as legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress.
1. Get fit:
The site sits at 3120 m above sea level. We kept the hike till the end of our trip to allow for acclimatization. That being said it was not particularly arduous and most reasonably fit people once acclimatized will be able to hike it without issues. There are plenty of shady rest spots so you can go at your own pace. There were certainly many old aunties from India who were slowly making their way up to the site in their sandals and saris. If they can do it, so can you! However, remember that you will be carrying extra weight of your photography equipment. It will be a comprise in how much you are willing to slug up there. In the end I decided on four lenses and a full frame body. I did not bring a tripod as I didn't have one with me on this trip. It may be useful in lower lighting but I often make use of the ground and other ad-hoc items to create my poor-man's tripod.
2. Know your lighting:
This issue is key. The structure technically faces mostly due west. Hiking during the morning will mean that the structure is mostly in shadows. Once 11am is reached the temples will emerge into the light. I studies the light the previous day and suggested to our guide that perhaps going in the afternoon might be better for light. He was disinclined to agree, but perhaps he thought that it would be better for the light in the sense that if we departed early, we could hike mostly in the shade. As we ate lunch in the cafeteria after our visit, the light was only getting better and better. So up I went a second time, camera lens et al. I am so glad I did as the lighting in the afternoon was beautiful and fell much better on the compound. If I was to do it again, I probably would go up early in the morning to see if there was any mist floating around giving it an unearthly aura. And I would go back up again in the late afternoon. I would stay until sunset. The things we do for a good picture! The site is not lite at night so night photography might not be that great unless you are lucky enough to get a clear night and maybe a full moon.
Though Bhutan is not overrun with Tourists, this site along with the TImphu Tsechu draws a fair amount. That being said it is still a spectacular site to behold and worth the visit (or two). Take note that most tourists go early in the morning. It is probably cooler and more shade. On my second hike after lunch, I did not see a single tourist. There were a few local people, but not a single damn tourist! I had the place to myself. I strongly urge you to consider an afternoon visit. Better lighting and less tourists - you do that math!
4. Inside photography:
Photography inside the temple is strictly forbidden. No bags or cameras allowed. Bring a lock as you can check your bag and equipment in a small locker. You will be searched for any recording device and will not be permitted to bring it in. This includes all camera and phones. Remember that this is a sacred place and you are very lucky to be able to see it. So cameras off and soak it in.
As I mentioned in the "get fit" blurb, pack what you need as you must carry everything up with you. That being said there are horses that will carry you as far as the cafeteria. You are on your own after that. I brought the following lenses:
i. Canon Zoom Lens EF 24-105mm 1:4 L IS USM
ii. Canon Zoom Lens EF 70-200mm 1:4 L IS USM
iii. Canon Wide Angle 16-35mm IS L
iv. Canon Lens TS-E 45 mm 1:2.8
In the end I used mostly the 24-105mm zoom lens and the 70-200mm zoom lens. The tilt-shift was fun but I am still learning this one. The wide angle was not used too much either. I didn't bring a tripod and just made do with either my bag, a branch or a ledge.
6. Vantage Points:
There are many vantage points along the way. I stuck to the "short cut" trails which had a few extra vantage points and less traffic. It is hard to get lost as they just take you off the main path and back again without the threat of horses running past you. As the day passed and the crowds thinned out, you will have the place to yourself to photograph so just be patient.
Our Burma advent occurs at quarter past midnight and having successfully obtained our business visas we are relieved to be ushered into the comfort of a taxi and travel along proper tarmac roads which are mercifully clear at this early hour. With a good night's sleep under our belt and a relaxing recovery day at the hotel we are on good form for the early evening introduction to our tour companions. Following the obligatory form filling we leave the hotel and have our first experience of dicing with death whilst attempting to cross a road. Our guide Lin, a capable young man of twenty six, with his Burberry glasses and Hugh Grant style flopping fringe, waits for the smallest hesitation in the stream of traffic and sets off commanding us all to keep in a group and to keep going! Miraculously the traffic parts like the Red Sea and we arrive unscathed on the opposite shore. Our Moses leads us to a nearby restaurant and we dutifully sit like a group of children on their first day at school trying to recall the names of our classmates. The first meal is a selection of Burmese dishes with which we will become over familiar during the next twelve days. Mostly based on rice and fried noodles the protein components comprise of chicken, tofu and occasionally pork. The style is either Chinese ( ie it contains cashew nuts!) or a somewhat weak version of curry. We studiously avoid the salads having previously experienced the results of unwashed lettuce and raw vegetables. Our fellow travellers are an interesting bunch, a range of ages and nationalities and as soon becomes apparent, a fair few travel junkies amongst them.
Our first morning we visit the impressive Shwedagon Pagoda which is Myanmar's most sacred Buddhist shrine. It is the first time we practice the ritual of removing shoes and socks, covering any exposed knees or shoulders and priming our cameras or phones for the upcoming opportunity to capture our memories in digitalised form. We are saved the effort of climbing the hill by the provision of a glass lift manned by a bored looking attendant. Shuffling along a tiled covered walkway one becomes aware of the immensity of the site. The first impression is of an excess of gold so bright that it dazzles, set as it is against a sea of whitewashed masonry. We learn that sixty four pagodas encircle the main stupa, eight for each planetary post. The days of the week are divided up to correspond to these posts, Wednesday being divided into morning and afternoon to oblige the seven days to conform to the eight planets. In Buddhism it is important to know the day and time of your birth as this affects many important decisions such as life partners and career choices. Lin has a handy app which allows him to tell us the day of our birth. The days also correspond to certain animals so I discover that I was born on a Wednesday and my 'lucky' animal is the elephant! It is fascinating to see local devotees pouring cups of water over the Buddha at the station for their day of the week. As the Pagoda is undergoing restoration we also view some of the thirteen thousand solid gold plates being carried by a simple pulley system to the top of the dome. Each time one of these is donated by a devotee a monk bangs a gong and intones 'well done, well done, well done'. It is a noisy affair! At the top of this pagoda the 'diamond bud' is set with a priceless seventy six carat diamond which refracts the sun's rays onto the terrace below. We visit many other pagodas during our trip but none to rival this. We also make our first acquaintance with the rust-coloured robed monks whose shaved heads and bare feet make them look disarmingly alike. Their female counterparts are distinguished only by their pink robes as they too are in shaven simplicity.
A brief walking tour of the old colonial buildings in town introduces us to the British sojourn here from 1885. Although the British as a colonial power were not popular there thankfully seems to be a more accepting attitude the the British as tourists. After lunch, where the main activity was trying to copy the amazing napkin folding technique which produced beautiful lotus flowers, we head for the airport and our journey to Mandalay.
The following morning we make our way to the city's lively waterfront for our trip upriver to Mingun. This is the site of the world's largest, though unfinished, pagoda, the world's second largest bell and temples hundreds of years old. A lively earthquake or two have rendered the edifices irreparable but they are impressive non the less.Here we also become aware of the world's all too common custom of trying to sell unwanted goods to tourists! But these girls are good! Instead of haggling and moaning at us they slip into easy conversation asking about our families and places of origin, walking with us to the places of interest. They 'guard ' our shoes whist we are visiting the temple and then with elegant smiles ask if we'd care to purchase postcards, tee shirts, and other various bric-a-brac items! The tourists with their careless dollars buy things they neither want nor need rather than disappoint or annoy these gentle saleswomen who can prove most persistent if their primary overtures are met with unobliging results. The return boat journey where we lounge in steamer chairs under a shaded canopy- comfortable despite the somewhat shabby appearance- is followed by lunch at a riverside restaurant. There is an attempt at a puppet show but our view is obscured by a pillar so all we know of it is the accompanying music which sounds as though it's made by a couple of toddlers let loose with cymbals and a party blower. I'm sure it's an acquired taste! The afternoon is spent visiting the remnants of Amarapura a once great city south of Mandalay. We also stop at a street of stone masons who carve every conceivable size and shape of Buddha. The air is laden with dust and every surface looks as though icing sugar has been sifted on to it. Whole families live and work in these lung-busting conditions where they look old before their time due to their dust encrusted hair. All the Buddhas are made without faces as only the most experienced masons are trusted to turn the square chunks that top the meditating statues into the calm , benevolent image that the world is familiar with. Our last activity is to head for a sunset viewpoint from the two hundred year old, two kilometre long teak bridge at U Bein. The bridge will soon be forbidden to tourists and locals when a second crossing is available. Having experienced the uneven boards with areas missing and the 'sway' of perpetual motion this elevated series of planks with no side barriers, one can certainly say that it fails every health and safety consideration and a second crossing of the river whilst not as aesthetically pleasing will be a healthier option for the villagers! I really hope they leave the old one in place though as it certainly makes a charming addition to the area.
An early start and a two hour bus drive takes us up to the hill station at Maymyo which was established during the colonial era as an escape from the heat laden plains. Not surprisingly we find elegant colonial architecture and English style country mansions. In one sadly neglected mock Tudor establishment we view the residence of England's bachelors abroad, complete with tennis court and what would have been tranquil gardens with areas laid to lawn. The full size snooker table and home bar were no doubt well used by the occupants.
A short ride later we are let loose in the most beautiful botanical gardens which were laid out by English Victorians. Many species are recognisably English and the setting around a large lake makes it feel as though one were walking in a park in Blighty. This is no pocket handkerchief garden as it extends for many acres incorporating a swamp walk, an aviary, an orchid garden, a bamboo grove ( with the most extraordinary and colossal bamboo we have ever set eyes on) in addition to pretty summer houses and the inevitable pagoda out in the middle of the lake. Although time is short we skip round a wonderful display of butterflies but are less enamoured by the corresponding display of beetles, some of which are the stuff of nightmares complete with horns and body armour! Reluctantly we make our way back to the coach although Steve is accosted on the way by a group of locals who want to have their photographs taken with him- the greater spotted Englishman perhaps!
The rest of the day is spent visiting temples including Kuthodaw Pagoda that claims to house the world's largest 'book'. It is a series of 729 marble tablets inscribed with the entire teachings of Buddha, each housed in its own shelter and covering vast tracts of land. Apparently a team of 2,400 monks were responsible for this feat of endurance. Local trucks take us up winding switchbacks far too tight for a coach to navigate and we hang on grimly as we slither and slide on the wooden benches with barely a handhold between us. The state of the clutch comes into question as a worrying smell begins to permeate the late afternoon air but we arrive at the top without incident and begin to gather for a visit to yet another pagoda. Unfortunately, the small stool that is provided to assist us in our descent from the truck slips beneath my foot and I cascade backwards and land across the edge of the truck on my back. Steve's lightening reflexes save my entire weight collapsing onto my spine and as a result I am fortunate to get away with an impressive bruise rather than a fractured vertebrae! Having collected myself after the shock of finding my legs disappearing from underneath me, we stagger up a few steps to the beginning of several escalators which deliver us to the top of Mandalay Hill to the Pagoda sitting thereon. We have come to watch the sunset but it is rather an anticlimax, just a yellow globe sinking into the horizon, although the view is far reaching and helps us appreciate the flat nature of the surrounding countryside. Having made it safely down the hill without further incident we retire to our hotel and pack ready for a 5.30 start the following morning.
While it is still pitch black we are bundled into the coach and deposited at the waterfront where we are to board a ferry boat bound for Bagan. There is a hive of activity with people trying to slither down a fairly steep slope without benefit of steps or handrail towards a narrow plank which is the only entrance to our steamer. Thankfully we do not have to manhandle our luggage down this precipitous route as several local men have been delegated the tricky task. Their sure-footed composure merely serves to make us look more incompetent but somehow we all arrive on deck and the luggage is duly stored in the hold. The smell of the boat accosts ones senses- a mixture of wet wood and fuel added to,no doubt, by the litter laden waters of the Ayeyarwady River. Wicker chairs are available on the top deck and despite the freezing conditions we decide they look more inviting than the fixed benches below which sit centurion like amidst the unpleasant odours. We opt for dragging our chairs under the tarpaulin stretched over the central section of the boat in anticipation of much hotter weather later in the day. At this point the sun seems nothing but a fond memory and we huddle in groups putting on what layers we can and donning unsuitable sun hats in an attempt to preserve what heat we do generate. Once underway we are given a simple breakfast of boiled eggs and bread and a more picnic atmosphere pervades the scene - albeit the kind of picnic one remembers on cold beaches during damp summer holidays! A couple of hours into our journey the sun finally puts in an appearance and there is another shuffling of the seating arrangements to accommodate those who want to risk the UV Rays and those who don't. During the initial stages of the journey we ogle keenly every riverside dwelling or moving person but the rural Burmese way of life is a slow one and we soon gravitate to reading or in my case knitting! Of more interest is the variety of craft on this busy river, many transporting goods from the small fishing villages to the larger towns and others taking vast quantities of bamboo or teak wood any place they can command a high price. The journey is a long one and the chairs without the benefit of a cushion become rather uncomfortable. However, we enjoy the slower pace and entertaining conversations with our fellow travellers so overall enjoy the experience. As the sun begins to set we finally leave the middle of this vast expanse of water and set course for the bank. Most people shake off their inertia and gather at the front of the boat to see where we're headed. It has the appearance of a crowd chatting over cocktails but sadly the cocktails are but figments of our imaginations! After a twelve hour journey we are more than ready to disembark. Now faced with the prospect of staggering up the sloping river bank on unsteady river legs we are relieved to find a simple bamboo handrail. Unfortunately we are also swamped by locals offering to help us up the bank in expectation of a monetary recompense. Somehow we manage to fight our way through to the waiting coach leaving Lin to haggle over the moving of the baggage. Once we are eventually deposited at the Hotel we are given a scant fifteen minutes before setting off for our supper destination. Thankfully, in addition to the usual Myanmar staples we discover freshly made bread rolls and some distinctly Italian sounding dishes. This leaves us all in cheery disposition and with the aid of a few beers an enjoyable evening is had by all.
Bagan is littered with over 4,000 structures in the plains and by the end of the next day we feel as if we've seen most of them!! Pagodas are solid structures usually made of brick and some are covered in plaster and painted? En masse the pagodas are a truly remarkable sight and in their original glory must have been amazing but having scaled two or three and wandered around several others they began to merge into one another and it was no disappointment to move on to the lacquer making factory. Here we observed age old processes of covering very thin bamboo structures with thin layers of lacquer before adding intricate patterns. The expertise on display by the skilful workers was a joy to see and rummaging around the shop equally satisfying! Less successful was the wine tasting session after lunch. We were given a perfunctory tour of the buildings before being offered four equally disgusting wines to taste. Expectations had been high after a ' wine free' tour so imagine the disappointment when not a single one of us could face purchasing a bottle. A second visit to the previous evening's ' Sunbeam' restaurant restored the spirits despite the fact that it was back to beer!
Mount Poppa, an extinct volcano that is home to local spirits or deities known as 'nats' was our next destination. Having travelled for over an hour by bus there was the opportunity to climb the 777 steps to the shrine at the top of the hill! Also on offer was the chance to rest in beautiful hotel gardens sipping fresh lime soda and admiring the stunning view. No contest! Steve manfully trudged up the steps and had the satisfaction of gloating for the rest of the day-but no one was listening! In the evening minibuses transported us to a restaurant which was touristy in the extreme but surprisingly most enjoyable! The food was served on great round individual platters segmented to hold rice, a couple of curries, beans and various spices. However the main attraction was a puppet show exploring various aspects of Burmese life : a monks initiation ceremony, fighting with poles, girls dancing, an Indian man fighting with a horse! The skill involved in manipulating the puppets was extraordinary and was particularly noticeable when a top screen was removed and you could see the three puppeteers in action. One in particular gave a gravity defying demonstration with his puppet doing acrobatic leaps and somersaults that really should have been impossible and certainly would have been to anyone less skilled. The accompanying music was more of the cymbals and snake charm pipe variety but with the addition of a female singer it somehow sounded a lot better! Either that or we were beginning to get used to the plangent tones and had an enhanced appreciation of it.
Another early start saw us on the way to the airport in Nyuang U from where we were to take a forty minute flight to Heho, the gateway for Inle Lake. Owing to our tardy booking of the tour, Steve and I were unable to obtain a reservation on the same flight as everyone else so we took a later plane. Thankfully this meant we were saved the six thirty departure from the hotel but we were denied our lie-in as an over enthusiastic hotel staff member decided to give us the early morning wake up call at five forty five along with the rest of the group!! Although the airport appeared to resemble a third world, large tin roofed shed,we were astonished to find a most efficient check in and security operation. Hundreds of people were milling about with fascinating bundles of baggage and the brightly coloured outfits of the local people lent an almost party atmosphere to the proceedings. Once in the waiting area we found ourselves completely unable to understand the announcements and with a total lack of an information board of any description we began to wonder how we would know which rushing mob of passengers we should join to board our plane. On careful inspection of the people sitting around us I spotted a man with the same colour boarding pass as we held so we decided to make our dash at the same time he did! Mercifully we ended up on the correct plane but almost failed to sit together, it being free seating and all our fellow travellers being well versed in the ' elbows out and charge' method of securing their preferred location. We had barely buckled our seat belts before we were hurtling down the runway, the cabin stewardess giving the speediest safety demonstration we have ever seen! No sooner were we airborne than we hit a big area of turbulence which made one's stomach feel as though it had been left on the ground. However it proved to be a one-off event and the remainder of the flight was uneventful.
We were met at Heho by a taxi driver who took us through picturesque countryside and rolling hills to meet up with our group at a Buddhist monastery. We did the five minute tour as our companions were returning to the coach as we arrived but it was interesting to see a roomful of young monks chanting and memorising their lessons. Every male in Myanmar will become a monk sometime during his life. This may be a life-long calling or may be of just one or two weeks duration. Interestingly he can leave at any time even if he has been a monk for decades. The head is shaved and the rust coloured cloth is wrapped round and worn over one shoulder. The cloth is made up of several segments of fabric as a reminder that in earlier times a monk had to make his own covering from any scraps that could be sewn together. He is then committed to a life of simplicity where he has no possessions and must ask for alms in order to eat. It was amusing for us to notice that many of the younger monks were using mobile phones so possibly their lives were not so simple! The local people are very respectful of the monks and very generous when asked for food or other supplies. I was amazed to see shop keepers going through their produce to give the best of what they had rather than fobbing them off with the damaged or dated goods. Lin explained that it is part of Buddhist culture to do good deeds as a means of achieving credit which will improve one's lot in a following incarnation.
Once reunited with the ' gang' the coach heads for the lake where we and our luggage are loaded into long narrow boats. Four or five people sit one behind the other with the driver at the back in charge of the diesel fuelled engine and steering with a long handled rudder. The steep sides of the boat and the high pointed prow carve through the water with ease and we are soon navigating the waterways with alarming speed. After ten minutes or so it seems likely that we are not going to capsize so I release my clenched grasp of the side to give my cramped fingers some respite! Once out on the lake itself I am obliged to use one hand to cling to my hat as the brim is acting as a small sail and threatening to take its own journey across the lake. This is masterfully fixed the following morning by Yvonne, an older Australian lady in the group, by cutting a piece of washing line ( which she happens to have with her! ) and sewing it to the sides of the hat with dental floss so that it can be tied under the chin - brilliant! The journey across the lake takes about forty five minutes during which time we have plenty of opportunity to view the ubiquitous long boats surging across the lake, their rudders creating a glittering spray shaped like a bespangled butterfly behind the boat. The lake is home to a wide array of bird-life including egrets, cranes, ducks, storks and various birds of prey some of which we are fortunate enough to see. When we reach our destination we glide through an impressive gateway and a semi circle of wooden cottages on stilts comes into view. We are greeted at the jetty ( yes, there is one!) by a loud banging of drums and cymbals and the welcome sight of boatmen ready to help us out of our floating crafts and on onto terra firma. Having been allotted our own floating cottage we unpack and head for the restaurant which is on solid ground up, up up the hill via a series of stone steps. There is a dash for reception, also situated at this pinnacle, in the hopes of finding an Internet connection. This proves to be a vain hope as such connection as exists is impossibly slow. Dinner is served in a huge barn of a room with massive roof rafters, quite grand in comparison to most of the places we have eaten. The menu, however, is very familiar so it doesn't take long to make the rice/noodles choices! Owing to the gaps in the walls and floors of the wooden cottages we sleep under mosquito nets for the first time but neither see nor hear any unwelcome visitors in the night.
After breakfast we head out for a day on the lake slathered in sun cream and fitted out with the new improved hat and strong sunglasses. The scene on the lake has probably been the same for decades. Intha fishermen are gracefully arcing the water with their leg paddles whilst shaking out their tulle-like nets into the shallow waters of the lake, an action oft repeated and occasionally rewarded by the flapping of a silvered fish trapped in the mesh. This ancient method of feeding the Shan tribe is turned into a theatre for the tourists who are dazzled by their artistry for as long as it takes to capture the process on film. Sitting comfortably on padded wooden chairs, umbrella to hand to guard against an excess of sun or spray our boats speed away to visit the wonders of the floating gardens. Shake from your mind any image of flower borders or arboreta and think of allotments which have over-taxed their workers and stubbornly grown the native reeds and grasses as an embellishment to the struggling crops of gourds and tomatoes. Anchored to the lake bed by bamboo stakes, these strips of earth will tolerate the weight of one or two persons before submerging both crop and gardeners in the persistently eroding waters of the lake. Living in bamboo creations on stilts the life of the villagers takes place above this primitive Venice. Boating to one's neighbour is de rigeur and the smallest of children can be seen happily cross legged at the rear of a longboat navigating the narrow waterways with skill and composure. Everywhere we see smiles and receive the cheery greeting ' Min Gala Ba '(hello) from young and old alike. This friendly acceptance of the gawping foreigner is a real credit to these hard working locals. Racing up the mini-rapids of one of the wider waterways we observe the steep sides of mud constantly suctioned by the relentless movement of the waters perpetuated by the journeys of endless boats. The diesel guzzling transporters of tourists are no doubt fouling the environment but are welcomed anyway for bringing the bearers of dollars and kyat to cottage industries weaving exotic fabrics by hand or making intricate silver jewellery. The working conditions although basic seem decent enough and again we are met by happy countenances which appear to be the default setting of this amicable race.
The following day we take to the waters again,our destination the Indein ruins some forty five minutes away.We are well shod as we are expecting a day of trekking although in actuality it turns out to be more of a leisurely amble than a route march. Soon after we start walking we find ourselves amidst a small herd of cattle being steered to new pastures,( if the dry sun-baked grass in dusty soil can qualify as pasture!). The presence of a couple of calves sets us oohing and aahing but we are less impressed with having to dodge the cow-pats in their wake. At the top of the slope we suddenly come across a pagoda and ruined stupas built in the eighth century. By now we realise that the building of pagodas is something of a national hobby, each one trying to outdo its neighbour and it is clear from this crumbling collection that this is an age-old custom. We continue through the farmland and tiny villages, stopping to watch a woman making some sort of rice pancakes which we have seen on drying racks along our route. They are a local snack tasting very like a mixture of rice cakes and chapatis. An elderly gentleman smiles toothlessly at us whilst collecting up the finished products, perhaps a job he's given to make him feel useful. We also see one daughter watching her mother but at a safe distance. She has 'Down's syndrome and we reflect on how hard it must be to have a child with disabilities here. The rest of our walk takes us to the local monastery and a school. Twenty six children are housed in one long building split into three areas by woven bamboo 'walls'. As we enter one boy is standing by his teacher reciting his lesson by rote at the top of his voice. He stutters slightly upon sighting this posse of foreigners but shouts on manfully once he is secure in our nodding encouragement and obviously relishes the round of applause he receives upon completion. The rest of the children are twittering like a nest full of restless birds and upon being handed new notebooks ( which are our gifts to the school) they excitedly flick through the empty pages then show each other the varying pictures on the front covers. Their teacher encourages the younger children to sing us a song which we belatedly realise is in English! It is a little discomforting to feel they have to put on a performance for their uninvited guests but when we see them singing with such gusto we wonder if it isn't a relief from the routine learning of their day. Throughout all of this one child remains blissfully unaware as he is fast asleep with his head upon his arms. As we turn to leave, his classmates shake him awake, shoving his new book into his bleary eyed countenance, anxious that he shouldn't miss all the excitement. On our way out we glance at a blackboard at the far end of the room. It is full of English sentences but we note that the last question reads ' who is his name?'! Lin explains that in such rural areas even the teachers are not very well educated but the fact remains that a good percentage of the village children were receiving a primary education which bodes well for this still developing country. En route to the final destination we see two water buffalo being led into the river for a relaxing wallow and most of us wish we could cool off in similar manner.
On our return to the 'floating cottages' we are thankful to spend a few moments reading on the verandah, rare moments of solitude amidst the activity bubble that is our tour. Happily, we are unmolested by mosquitoes as we rest contentedly, soaking in the peaceful environment and soothed by the gentle lapping of the lake. Eventually the sinking sun deprives us of sufficient light to read, our once keen eyes dimmed by the ageing process, so we retreat to our cabin. Night falls quickly but whilst enjoying pre- dinner drinks with the rest of the group on the terrace of the dining hall we are treated to the spectacle of a waning gibbous moon rising above the silhouetted roofs of the cottages below. It is an orange globe pulsating like the heart of a consuming fire until it is freed of the horizon, whereupon it glides up into the sky and rests as an untethered lantern shedding brightness over our gathered company. Having spent the majority of the trip with beer as the only alcoholic beverage we are introduced to 'gin sour' ( others of our group preferring the ' whisky sour' option) and are glad to make its acquaintance! Made with local gin and bitters they cost the princely sum of two dollars so the barman is kept busy replenishing the ever emptying glasses. By now we have a comfortable camaraderie with all our fellow travellers and we enjoy swapping stories of previous expeditions and significant life events. Even Lin our host is drawn in to these sharings of personal life and enjoys the ready laughter and friendly banter. After a Shan banquet of curried chicken and pork with assorted nuts and vegetables eaten off carefully crafted banana leaves we express our thanks to Lin for his excellent leading of the tour as this is to be our last night all together. We retire for the night strangely cut off from news and information owing to the glacially slow efforts of the hotel's Internet provision.
The following morning our bags are outside the doors by 7am ready for our reluctant departure. It is very cold and we join the others to huddle over morning tea cups and whatever breakfast we can consume attired in buttoned up coats and scarves. Lin even sports a woolen hat but the rest of us have failed to foresee the necessity for such attire on our Asian adventure. Once in the coach with luggage safely stowed we soon warm up. The journey to the airport takes us along a series of hairpin bends up and across steep hills. We take a communal sharp intake of breath as our coach driver decides to overtake a slow moving lorry on a particularly vicious bend with approaching traffic and a perilous drop to our left hand side gloriously unprotected by a barrier of any kind! Having survived this potentially life-threatening incident the rest of the journey is uneventful and we have leisure to observe the vehicles overflowing with locals in their black garments and colourful turbans riding both inside and outside their various modes of transport. Young men careless of personal safety cling to the sides of lorries glad to take advantage of a motorised delivery to their destination. Whole families ride on one motorbike with tiny children perched atop the petrol tank or hanging off a mother's hip. Naturally, there's not a helmet in sight!
The airport is busy but again we are impressed by the efficiency of the checking-in process. The ancient scanners used to inspect the luggage are perhaps more for the impression of thoroughness rather than detection of hazardous materials but we are through and duly dispatched to the waiting area. Once more Steve and I have failed to find a reservation on the 'group' plane so are due to take an alternative ten minutes behind the others. We spend a twitchy twenty minutes watching other planes board before our tardy aircraft puts in an appearance. We run the gauntlet with a crowd of Japanese tourists to secure the favoured seats to the rear of the plane which ensure a speedy exit at our destination point in Yangon. The rest of the group are patiently waiting for us and greet us warmly as though we were relatives arriving for a visit! Once the luggage has been dispatched into the care of local porters we make our way to our waiting coaches. Outside the airport we are swaddled in the heat, a noticeable difference from the cooler climes of the lake. A cacophony of horns and impatient vehicles all vying for places to pull in and load luggage and passengers assault our senses. We are soon oblivious to this squirming for position as it is time to say farewell to half of our companions. Seven of us are leaving the tour at this point whilst the others are to continue for a further four days at the beach. There is genuine regret at this parting of the ways and there are hugs all round in addition to heartfelt comments about the pleasure of meeting one another. Reluctantly we are herded into our separate vehicles and whisked away to the hotel where this wonderful adventure began just twelve days ago, sad that it's over but so grateful for the experience of this truly magical land and it's amazing people.
By Nicky Phelps