I've not found a better view yet!

Philippines: Apo Island

“try to be like the turtle, at ease in your own shell” Bill Copeland

The sunrays pierced the surface of the water leaving shards of light dancing on the steady flow of the sea.
These turtles have been navigating the sea floor for longer than I’ve been breathing the air above the surface, an incredibly humbling and bewildering sentiment. Majestically manoeuvring about rocks and coral with the grace and ease of a well rehearsed ballet, shoals of fish darting in synchronicity across my path, everything has and knows it’s place like it’s all been planned out before my arrival.

Coming up for air...

Coming up for air…

I’m not  a water baby, I’ve referred before to my sinking skills in place of my ability to glide through the waters effortlessly, snorkelling kind of gives me that dread of ‘oh my goodness this could go horribly wrong, will they judge me if I wear a life jacket?’ feeling, and leaves me with the sinking regret of wishing I’d bit the bullet and taken some swimming lessons before I left. What grown woman can’t swim right? …Me, that would be me.

So snorkel in hand, flippers squeezed onto my feet I gracefully (read; like a baby elephant crossed with Bambi) I dove into the clear waters and you know what(?) I swam!

Look at me all floaty and stuff!

Look at me all floaty and stuff!

Apparently when I’m not fighting to keep my head above water I am the water baby of my dreams.

The turtles, not my swimming skills, are of course the main drawing point of this little island and believe me, they’re pretty incredible. The island itself only has 4 hours of electricity a day and dodgy wifi at one cafe (they can get pretty possessive over the code). The streets twist and wind into their own little maze and throughout the day street food stalls pop up outside houses, in nooks and crannies or centrally in the street, tempting forcing you to indulge your senses in the amazing aromas of the fresh delicacies. Now I’m not trying to get you fat or anything but fried cheese rolls with (luminescent) cheese powder are my biggest and best guilty pleasure.

Early morning view from the Shoreline

Early morning view from the Shoreline

So a little info on getting to Apo Island from Bohol (there are also ferries from Cebu):

Ferry to dumaguette (700, 100 baggage, 20 terminal fee)
Bus (50) trishaw (500, bargain)
Malatapay to Apo (300)

Boats are your only way to access this stunner!

Boats are your only way to access this stunner!

Of course a tiny island like this can be pretty cosy, or lonely depending how you looks at it, you can get around the island in 20 minutes, a day, or a few depending on how you feel about social media blackout, limited meal options and unlimited access to turtles.

We stayed for a few days and managed to fill our time with the following:

Mango milkshakes (80 pesos) at a cute generator powered shake bar, complete with adorable children and puzzling decor.

Shake Bar

Shake Bar

Climbing to the highest peak for sunset, it doesn’t take long but theres’s a lot of steps and the heat to contend with, guides are available in dog form, they seem pretty insistent on walking you up there ( and to be honest I enjoyed it more on the beach with a beer in hand).

At the top for sunrise... just

At the top for sunrise… just

Laying on the beach under the stars, picking out constellations and talking about the things you talk about when confronted with a sky painted with infinity. (Sorry guys no pictures, it was lights out at 10 and we were too busy enjoying the moment to worry about long exposures.)

Chilled beers after a hard day snorkelling, with new friends, old friends, local friends and annoying animals, the choice is yours!

This is the life!

This is the life!

My preferred sunset spot

My preferred sunset spot

Serious sunbathing = win! And serious sunburn (but I’d give that one a miss), I’ll spare you those photos too, not sure our relationships ready for you to see my white bits!

Here's another gorgeous view instead!

Here’s another gorgeous view instead!

And starting off your cat lady collection…

The view from our room each day, Moma cat and her kittens

The view from our room each day, Moma cat and her kittens

Of course it goes without saying that Apo Island is best known for its amazing diving spots, here you can get your PADI Open Water in some of the most beautiful waters there are! The prices are super reasonable and if you’re not the diving kind you can hire a snorkel for as little as £1 a day!

Meeting these gorgeous guys, just by stepping in the ocean or by diving in!

Meeting these gorgeous guys, just by stepping in the ocean or by diving in!

So… How’d you get there?

Well we went from Bohol but you can get there from Cebu too.

First you need to get the boat to Dumaguette from Bohol that’s 700pesos for the ticket, 20pesos for the terminal fee and 100pesos baggage (as of Feb 2016)

Secondly you need to get to Malatapay the bus will cost you 50pesos, we opted for the trishaw   as there were 5 of us (yes we all fit) it cost us 500pesos due to some great bartering but be prepared to be asked to pay up to 1000pesos

Malatapay to Apo Island there’s some dodgy little shacks and you can generally do some bartering but ultimately there’s a really pushy woman yelling “YES”, “NO”, “YOU NEXT” in seemingly random order, for this pleasure and the wettest boat ride you will ever encounter (wrap your perishables up tight!!) will cost you the tidy sum of 300pesos.

All the tickets!!

All the tickets!!

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Bohol: 50 Shades of Green

A short trip out of Tagbilaran and into the heart of Bohol is all I needed to know that this is the jungle paradise I’d been dreaming of.

Our accommodation, on the secluded banks of Laoy river just down the road from Loboc, lies down a road that the unseasonal rain had turned into a treacherous slip and slide.

Loboc town centre

Loboc town centre

Nuts Huts is in the infamous lonely planet with a star next to it’s name, leaving me with the sinking feeling it would be over crowded, to the point I thought my email a few days before arrival would be met with laughter and instant refusal. Fortunately for us there is space for two.

(I so highly recommend this place, awesome food, loads to do, great to chill out and one of the best places I stayed… not even paid to say it)

Waterfront view, right out of our hut

Waterfront view, right out of our hut

There are so many islands to choose from in the Philippines, 7,107 to be precise, so why Bohol?

Well I’ll give you a little clue, they grow up to about 16cm long in the body, weigh up to about 160g, making it one of the smallest primates in the world. Aside from these incredibly informative facts they’re incredibly freaking cute with huge eyes covered in devinely thick fur and long spindly tails.

Do you know what it is yet?

It’s this guy…

I shall call him squishy and he shall be mine

I shall call him squishy and he shall be mine

Obviously!!!

This little fella is a Tarsier and has plotting little eyes that pierce straight through you, and seen as it’s eyes are fixed in it’s skull can go all exorcist and turn it’s head a full 180degrees, it’s not just a pretty face though these babies can jump 3metres between trees! That’s over 18x it’s own body length. Cute and with skills.

Bohol is one of the only islands you can find this fella on and the Philippine Tarsier Foundation has one of the only humane centres that works toward not only conserving the species but helping them thrive and survive, that means no touching! A lot of other places allow handling, petting, poking and loud noises all of these can lead to the poor guys getting depressed, and from the videos, visibly scared and upset (insert sad face here), believe it or not these guys are capable of suicide!

It’s not all doom and gloom though, these beauties are not common in this huge world of ours, not that you’d probably see the little beauties if they were as they come out at night, and I got my fix of the fellas while supporting the ongoing conservation, and yes I did buy a cuddly tarsier magnet. No regrets.


 

Our bus to the

Our bus to the chocolate hills

It was in Bohol we discovered the Philipinos love for cheesy pop and colourful buses which boast loud speakers and an impressive collection of 80’s ballads and apparently Celine Dion’s life work.

A scooter would doubtlessly be the preferred mode of transport but still unable to get over scooter-gate 2009, I was only too happy to sit and gaze in appreciation out of an open window at the endless green that surrounded us. The weaving roads eventually giving way to the distinct formations of the Chocolate hills.

The (inedible) Chocolate hills

The (inedible) Chocolate hills

Chocolate hills. despite the name are now edible or in fact very chocolately, in fact the hills are the only part of the name that isn’t completely misguiding.

From the top you can turn 360degrees and be surrounded by varying shades of green rising and falling in pristine perfectly formed mounds, plus don’t the clouds kind of look like little cotton wool balls(?!).

At the top of my own Chocolate Hill

At the top of my own Chocolate Hill

Chocolate hills for miles!!

Chocolate hills for miles!!


Bohol also happened to be where one of my favourite travel memories happened, back at our home away from home we hired kayaks along the Laoy river to Busay waterfall, it was late afternoon and the sun wasn’t too far off setting, the normal traffic on the river had all but ceased and so we were left to paddle the short distance against the current relatively in peace. What we didn’t count on was there to be 2 local Filipinos sat on a little floating island, giggling away like school children drinking Tuba (coconut wine) and a box full of pork.

I would have been a little dubious about them, apart from one thing, the second they saw us they started yelling words of encouragment and laughing. I arrived slightly breathless and was immediately rewarded with my own glass of Tuba. First without coke, and the with coke; to appreciate how bad it is without!

A short while after a boat turns up with the whole family on board, they begin offloading lamps and dining room chairs and a box… containing an entire roast pig!! I was a little devastated when I realised the time and that we had to get back. I’ve got a lot of love for that night!

Dinner from my Kayak

Dinner from my Kayak


There seemed to be a million and one things to be done on Bohol and one day I intend on returning and doing them all, not just because the people we absolutely hilarious and so sharing (even if nothing on this earth can make me try cow intestine). But one of the highlights was just being there, sure the herbal saunas, firefly boat trips and swimming in the rivers with coconut floats was fun and games but walking through the villages and being led home by over excitable school children through rice paddies was so blissful.

Though the rice paddies Bryan Adams ‘heaven’ chorused out to it’s audience of scarecrows swaying so gently off beat, mimicking a little too well the paddies workers, eerily donning the discarded t-shirts stretched tightly over wooden crosses, above an undulating emerald green sea of rice grass.
The morning sun is already to making my vest stick to my skin as I seek shelter beneath one palm tree then the next, there’s a soft breeze in the air but it does nothing to ease the heat. Everything here is so peaceful, you almost just want to stop and hold onto this moment, just stand still and take a little snapshot you can open up again anytime you like. In the distance an oncoming boat perusing the Laoy river besides me blares out it’s assortment of 80’s hits. I can’t help but smile, this music follows you everywhere. 

Stood still enjoying the moment ... taking a selfie

Stood still enjoying the moment … taking a selfie

On the way home I walk by a family doing their laundry in the river and two small children taking baths in the waterway which feeds the paddies, splashing and laughing. Another house in the small village has a family of kittens taking refuge in the engine of a disused car and the stray dogs follow at my heels begging for any scraps. Some children up ahead are playing, they keep stopping as long as they dare before we get too close and then they run off giggling. I hand them my pastries from the bakery, one of the little laughs reminds me of my niece and it seems strange to think what different lives they lead.

What different lives we lead...

What different lives we lead…

As we enter the rice paddies I start to vere off to the waterway but the two children left pull me back with their call ‘no wrong way lady, follow us!’, I knew it was the wrong way but my achy hot feet were dying for the cold refreshing water, instead we follow them all the way down the long winding path that lead back to the canoe across the river. Each hill they get to they run down and then look back in fits of laughter, their eyes lighting up as the smiles stretch from one ear to the other, I mimic them running and screaming down the slippy mud hill which only spurs on the mischievous grins.

Follow the leader, through the rice paddies

Follow the leader, through the rice paddies

If I close my eyes, I go right back, almost able to feel how content I felt with life, the sun on my face and how blessed I felt.

Our riverside walkway

Our riverside walkway

The canoe across the river

The canoe across the river

My favourite little village to walk through

My favourite little village to walk through

Recycling at it's best

Recycling at it’s best at the local village

I missed off the party island and I’m glad I did, this felt so much more authentic.


Been to Bohol? Something I missed or you just want to show some love (remember if you don’t have anything nice to say…)

I’d love to hear from you!

Philippines: Cebu and the Whale Sharks

I may have gotten a little carried away with the length and amount of flights I’d be willing to do in one day when I booked this particular leg of the trip.

After a day sat in Bangkok airport stuffing myself with 7/11 toasties and the traditional Starbucks, followed by delayed flights in Manilla due to the Japanese Emperor apparently needing all of the airspace for his jollies across this island country, our arrival to Cebu was topped off with those travel lowlights you try not to let people know about… a hostel from hell.

Keeping occupied in BKK

Keeping occupied in BKK

After I spent a full 5 minutes swimming in my clothes it was time to take action, and that my friends is the time we discovered Philippinos genuine and generous love of malls! Air con bliss, clean, chain brands, never looked so good.

But this is not a blog about the latest lines at H&M  (although they were lovely) and I counted my lucky blessings when we hopped on a bus the next day in the stifling humidity to travel 3 hours down the coast to the Whale Sharks!!


Noordzee hostel is a little up the coast from where we were to have our fishy encounter and kind of in the middle of no where with a karaoke shack next door, it’s an awesome little hostel just on the coast and with beautiful views, comfy beds and delicious food… not even paid to say it! They also do some cool tours from there, shame it was called off due to rain on the day we planned… boo!

Our well deserved drink by the ocean with our hoard of seashells

Our well deserved drink by the ocean with our hoard of seashells

The great thing about staying in these small towns is how much you see of the actual culture of a country with out it feeling like a show and tell. At the entrance of Boljoon, this particular small town, is the church a simple stark white building, cracks tracing along it’s exterior like veins on it’s surface, alive with it’s animated history.

The church in Boljoon

The church in Boljoon

This particular church sheltered the towns people from storms and battles, has provided refuge to immigrants to the helpless, it’s interior much like the exterior is being treat with some TLC when we visited but it was clear this was more than a building to the town it was the heart.

Beautiful blues and greens traced the walls up to a gorgeously intricate ceiling, Sistine Chapel it was not but I sure loved it.

The inside of the church

The inside of the church

Boljoon had a distinctly eery feeling to it, something I couldn’t quite place, like where was everybody? It kind of gave me that feeling you’re being watched but you don’t know by whom or where from.

One thing I can always find though is something weird and wonderful to eat, even if you’d only eat it once. You know when you’re younger and your mum says ‘no dessert till you’ve eaten your dinner’? Well it was one of those grown up days where I went full on rebel and quickly  ordered the brightest most bizarre looking dessert EVER! Much to the amusement of the two Philipino women across the brightly dressed shack we stumbled into out of the rain.

‘Halo Halo’, oh yeah that’s a thing!
– Condensed milk
-Shaved Ice
-Jelly sweets
-Ice Cream
… to be honest I’m not sure what else, apart from maybe those marshmallows.

'Halo Halo'

‘Halo Halo’


It was with a little bit of trepidation I went to see the Whale Sharks, these majestic beautiful creatures belong to and in the ocean and I am very much the land baby. I never know  if I m right to invade their space for means of my own entertainment, that and, well they’re huge what if I get sucked into their vast cavernous mouth! “They will spit you back out” our guy assured me,  “you will not taste very nice”… thanks.

The rain was coming down as we arrived, but hey what’s a little more water when you’re about to jump in the sea?

Gearing up to get into the water I couldn’t help but feel the nerves rise, all around me were more boats full of tourists and travellers from all over the world flapping their black fins, adorning their bleach/damp infused masks. I wasn’t scared of the Whale Sharks any longer, I was scared of drowning, a totally legit worry in a life jacket surrounded by able swimmers (read: potential life savers).

And then I saw it, the gaping mouth of this, the largest fish in our sea, and I was in… the sea that is, not the mouth.

I want to give you some beautifully illustrative piece of writing about these graceful giants manoeuvring with ease around a hoard of flailing limbs as everyone vied for their next great profile selfie, myself included…

Having selfies with sharks

Having selfies with sharks

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

But the worlds kind of failed me. It amazes me these beautiful creatures exist and that I got to see them. I never knew this was on my bucket list until I’d done it, I was always far to scared of the sea to want to swim out in the open, I didn’t even know these majestic creatures even existed before I started booking this trip. Will my bucket list ever get shorter?!

And if you’re wondering there are researchers on site and regular check ups, the whale sharks are not distressed or being harmed in any way by us swimming with them. They’re checked on regularly.


Just minutes away is one of the Philippines little (or big) gems, it’s waterfalls. After the Whale Sharks it was debatable whether anything could match up to our experience but just a quick ride left us standing at the beautiful Tumalog falls.

Even in the rain the jungle closing in around us made it feel like a magical, tropical bliss.

Standing at Tumalog Falls

Standing at Tumalog Falls

Growing up in England, close to an estuary, I’m never used to seeing luminous blue water that is’t the result of water treatment or some toxic algae. I don’t think this feeling will ever get old, staring up and seeing the jagged rock reaching high up into the sky, moss draped seductively over the outcrops luring you in, I’m in the Philippines, the water will be warm. Right?

... but you've not visited the falls until you've swam in the falls

… but you’ve not visited the falls until you’ve swam in the falls

All I’m saying is there’s a reason people round the edge kept there clothes on!

Here’s to the first explored island of the Philippines!!

Just a girl in a teashop

Ode to a Burmese Tea Shop

There’s a special little spot reserved in my heart for a street in Yangon. Not even a street really just a little slice of a street. Sandwiched between a tea shop and a book store on 37th street, away from the bustle of Trishaws and taxis.

Cigarettes are served up like snacks in the centre of the table, next to my delectable favourite fried potato balls.

I finished my first cup of tea and hailed the young boy in a Manchester United shirt, a team he’d probably never watched, to get me another with the kissing noise that is customary here, if not a little vulgar to foreign me.

I settled back in to my book with the battle sounds of the teashop echoing behind me, chinks of cups, incomprehensible yells from the teaboys and business deals being finalised over trinket sized teasets between grown men on child sized stools.

Grown men on toy chairs

Grown men on toy chairs

I felt my anxieties ease, the medicinal qualities of a cup of tea and good literature working it’s magic on a lonely alien in a Yangon tea shop.

A good book and an even better cup of tea is there anything more perfect?

A good book and an even better cup of tea is there anything more perfect?

I’m sat across from the bookshop we found on the first day in Yangon, reading the same book I bought, the buildings around me drenched in flaking paint with mildew carving into the bright greens and blues with stark brutality. Natures only claim here is in the cracks it has found home in the decaying colonial era buildings, An archaic and disarming reminder of a British era past. Leaves and vines find their way from drainpipes and unkempt corners next to laundry draped over balconette rails. Back on street level betel stains new and old decorate the floor around me and also the teeth of passing street workers, ‘mingalabar’, they say with their crimson lips parting into mischievous grins.

The book shop, piles of the classics, even the books here are fakes

The book shop, piles of the classics, even the books here are fakes

Returning here after 3weeks around the country has allowed for deeper analysis of this instantly mesmerising city. This friendly capital of old practically hostile in relation to its southern and Northern counterparts.

It is hard to distinguish at times whether passing looks are those of intrigue or disdain, confusing the two an easily forgivable offense, but looking out from my streetside (almost floor level) perch I can’t help but watch my surveyors pass with childish bemusement.

The tea boys here barely look old enough to be in school let alone out of it, yet there prowess and positions undeniable, they rule this place under the sharp eye of their, older, superior. Placing tempting potato balls down before me, mysterious banana leaf wrapped packages. Sneaking stares of curiosity when I turn my head away, only to break into fits of giggles when I catch their glares.

A teashop in Yangon, my sanctuary in a sea of unfamiliarity.

Fisherman of Inle

Myanmar: Inle Lake and the infamous Fisherman

Our little motor boat shattered the tranquility of the sleepy overcast morning as we zoomed out of the cluster of overhanging buildings and bush and onto the open lake, the early morning fisherman poised themselves masterfully on the end of their boats in perfected agility, a pose they’d clearly become more frequented with since the influx of tourists. Gracefully obliging to pose for photos with a little shy wave thrown in.

And POSE! Who needs Vogue...

And POSE! Who needs Vogue…

These are the fishermen Inle Lake is infamous for, just one commodity in this endearing lake side town.

Away from Nyuang Shwe the houses leer triumphantly over the water in neat  stilted rows bordered by floating villages and souvenir shops. In the grey morning light the bright clothes of the occupants provides welcome contrast against the greys and browns, off to the morning market or tending screaming children on exposed platforms.

Sticks holding up houses, seems totally safe

Sticks holding up houses, seems totally safe

Today we’d hired a boat from one of many boatmen and he sat at the back as we perched single file on rickety chairs with worn cushions and children’s blankets for warmth. The heavens first decided to open just as we’d disembarked onto the muddy shores of the biggest market on the south-east side of the lake and the opportunity for sweet condensed tea was too powerful (but then when is it not) to resist.

Busy market car... I mean boat park

Busy market car… I mean boat park

When it rains it pours

When it rains it pours

The brilliance I find in travelling is finding beauty in every unexpected rainstorm, as we huddled in to the smoky teahouse, open to the elements if it weren’t for the plastic sheeting. We, apparently, were not the only ones with this idea and we were soon packed in on all sides, with a few strays in there to boot, while a dishevelled looking husband dressed in a greying white top and what I presume were once colourful crops squeezed through non-existent gaps tending and taking orders, his wife played front of house and giver of pastries to hungry mouths.

Our tea table neighbours, chilling out by the puppets

Our tea table neighbours, chilling out by the puppets

Now, for me it has become to me a game of find the real market in Asia, because many of them now have turned it, quite rightfully, into a souvenir zoo, playing twisted games of who can guilt the foreigner into badly made fake products first. Funnily enough no don’t worry my life will go on without that carved wooden fork and the ironically offensive Buddha head.

Instead when you weave further into the the depths of the market past the manicured stalls you find something else, something real. And no, I am going to be even less in need of roses, fish heads and fresh tofu but there’s something about a market and just the unapologetic living that happens behind the welcoming facade that feels like you’ve just stepped into something private like you’ve gone behind the scenes in a wonderful play to realise the inner workings are even more wonderful.

Appealing right?

Appealing right?

Fresh Tofu, hella more appealing than the chicken

Fresh Tofu, hella more appealing than the chicken

Dried fish with that?

Dried fish with that?

Like a young boy getting a haircut while his mum haggles for fresh flowers, dogs lurching from hidden corners onto untended food stalls and retreating with even fiercer haste as they snatch away their coveted prize. The calls of the hawkers, the laughs between hagglers, the children clinging to their mums limbs as they hand over goods and the judging stares as you smile at strangers. I love it all, it’s community, it’s rawness still untouched or fazed by chain brands and supermarkets.

One of my favourite shots, just a family outing

One of my favourite shots, just a family outing

Enthusiastic selling of the flowers of luuuurve

Enthusiastic selling of the flowers of luuuurve

The day continued much as any tour thorough silver stores and weaving factories, herding grounds tourists and their purses, it’s an interesting lesson in culture and ways of life if you’re willing to ask the right questions and put in the time listening to the sales pitch but then came Karen or Kayan.

This tribe is indigenous to the area just south of the thai border near Inle Lake and probably doesn’t sound much different to any other tribe until you discover the other names they go by, the ‘long necked women’ and ‘giraffe ladies’ being a few…

Some of the older ladies in the tribe

Some of the older ladies in the tribe

It is unfortunate that with the rise in tourist interest tribes such as this Karen tribe have faced exploitation both in Burma and across the border in Thailand.

My heart raced as we entered the weaving shed perched ominously along one the side streams of the great lake, my curiousity had gotten the better of me and guiltily I felt intrigued to learn about these ladies. It’s an ethical dilemma at best, the opportunity to learn about a culture, but what exploitation were they facing behind closed doors?  

The girls and ladies adorned themselves in beautifully vibrant clothing and headdresses and I couldn’t help but let out a half smile half ‘oh my gosh Rebecca close our mouth it’s rude to stare’ face (you know the one). They weave intricately designed scarves and shawls and a younger girl talked to me a little about how she had first adorned the heavy brass rings at 8, 13 rings around 4kg! She proudly stated she had already reached 17 rings by the age of 14 and I couldn’t help but think grimly of her poor deformed collar bones and ribs, it made me feel a little wheezy at the thought, eventually these could weigh 10kg… I grimaced a little at the thought.

Traditional weaving

Traditional weaving

I couldn’t help but feel there were invisible strings orchestrating every answer, every move and although I looked at kind smiles and gentle, loving women I couldn’t help feeling tainted with sadness knowing the creepy guy running the joint was going home with a bigger cut than the girls.


Inle Lake has more on it’s shores and floating on it’s waters than just tourist traps though and travelling inland there are cooking classes (blog coming soon), bike tours and even a vineyard with wine tasting. Ok I’m not saying your palette is going to be going into orgasmic overdrive at the wine but the bike ride, the steep hill the view and (hopefully) the weather all but make it a must. Bikes are available up and down the main road same as boats (and their drivers) it’s always good to shop around though guys.

Riding through the countryside past fields of sunflowers

Riding through the countryside past fields of sunflowers

If you're lucky you'll have picked up some lovely friends to sample the wine with too!

If you’re lucky you’ll have picked up some lovely friends to sample the wine with too!

Across towards the vineyard

Across towards the vineyard

The view towards the lake in the afternoon sun

The view towards the lake in the afternoon sun

In all the journey to Inle and the time spent there was perfect from the weather to the people, the places and even the stinky fish in the market, I’d even drink that god awful wine again!

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Myanmar: Kalaw to Inle Lake – The Trek

The past 3 days has been consumed with walking, 4 to 7 hours a day over the roving landscape of Myanmar for the mandalay province to Shan state.

I know it sounds terrible right? What an awful way to start your last week in Myanmar, surrounded by lovely people from different countries, being welcomed into strangers homes and meeting their families while being fed the most delicious home-cooked food on a digital detox from everything Facebook. Just awful.

Ok I know, my sarcasm is terrible but I’m English and it’s the only wit I have.

Truth be told everyone I meet that does this trek is simply in awe of it and puts it as a highlight of their trip to Myanmar. Now I’m right there with them, singing the praises all the way.

Promise me if you find yourself in Myanmar you’ll do this trek. Pinky promise? Ok.

Arriving in Kalaw we made a beeline (after a recovery beer) to Sam’s Family Restaurant to book our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, I’d heard great things and the great things were well founded, not only does he help teach English to people from the surrounding villages he then employs them as guides so they can make a living for themselves and their families.

Zu our guide is one of these people. And he is instantly charismatic and lovable, greeting us all with a smile that literally takes over his whole face leaving his eyes sparkling like a mischievous child.

Seriously though, that smile

Seriously though, that smile

Sam himself is also quite a character with a similar lovable grin and kind nature, I just got a good vibe from this guy and instantly knew we were in for a good trek.

Waved off by Uncle Sam

Waved off by Uncle Sam

Our days were spent talking and laughing getting to know our new team, it always surprises me and leaves me smiling how when travelling you find friends almost instantly from groups that are just haphazardly thrown together. Groups perhaps in any other walk of life you’d never talk to, like a Spanish detective or Italian twins that live in France. This is the beauty of travelling and it keeps me hooked.

Good company, beautiful views, tasty food and a chance to learn about a hidden culture. Perfection.

In between all the laughs and talking was the silence, the silence that lasted hours but snapped by in seconds. A sensory overload as we walked through villages where strange old men came and gave us unripe oranges and smiles,or children followed us at a distance with their bike tyres as toys, where we came to hilltops to have the valley drop away to miles of tea plants or fields span out before us with uniform lines of crops.

In this post I decided to mainly fill it with all the beautiful things I saw and just hope they give you the same giddy, content feeling they gave me.

Children at a the 1st village playing with a cat before school

Children at a the 1st village playing with a cat before school

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Zu talking about how to make Green Tea

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Our first home-cooked meal … which was quickly followed by a nap

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Zu mixing the Thanaka paste they use on their faces

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Walking along the railway track

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Just walking the Buffalo

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Traditional weaving in one of the villages we passed through

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Processing all the chilli’s

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Making friends with the locals

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Traditional scarf weaving. (Typically I bought two)

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Chilli fields, miles of chilli fields

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My two favourite Italians

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Family dinner

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The sleeping quarters

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Morning preparation

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Sunrise in the Countryside

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An old crumbling Temple

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The final team photo

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Arriving at Inle Lake

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Our first glimpse of the fishermen at work… not posing for once

Zu: Call him!!

Zu: Call him!!

Myanmar: Mawlamyine, Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin – The Orwell Trail

George Orwell became, it seems, an unwitting advertisement for Myanmar, or Burma as he knew it righting not so fictional fiction about a country fighting for an identity and later just fighting for survival against it’s own repressive government.

This isn’t a far historical cry, small towns and cities still cry out with bare openly their scars of a not so distant past. Mawlamyine indeed only this year opened it’s death railway museum accompanying it’s already established memorial grave for foreign victims of its tainted past.

Row after row of Englishmen, Americans and many others caught up in the bloody construction of the railway construction and the struggle under Japanese rule. A tort tale of trickery, manipulation and extortion of a trusting people and prisoners of war.

An old steamer, a symbol of the death railway

An old steamer, a symbol of the death railway

Not for the first time I was caught unaware of the full events and found my self slowly winding through row after row of graves for my countrymen with tears in my eyes as I read the loving eulogies engraved from absent families.

A tribute

A tribute

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This small town and the surrounding area is one of the places Orwell was posted during the war and still bares many scars of turmoil and war, but also is a place of crumbling european architecture and modern Burmese triumph, housing the largest reclining Buddha in the world and a pretty impressive, if not a little creepy, mountain complete with shrine and ‘men only’ summit.

The rather impressive reclining Buddha with a Hermit I forget the name of (oops)

The rather impressive reclining Buddha with a Hermit I forget the name of (oops)

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Up North is home to the main focus of Orwells stories, Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin.

The boat to Mandalay had me humming and reciting all the songs and literature I could recall about the road to Mandalay, ultimately this just ended with me humming Robbie Williams, thinking of my Mum… not very deep or cultural but it put a smile on my face!

Mandalay never really stood a chance, after Bagan lets me honest no temple stood a chance and in my case, wasn’t enough to make me pay the (in my opinion) extortionate fee. Instead we opted take a tour of Mandalay on foot.

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Without a map we soon found our way out of the city in the outlying slums. My cheeks haven’t hurt this much is an age, we were constantly being waved at or smiled at, we spent the day wandering so contentedly we full on missed the sunset at U Bein bridge, the oldest teak bridge in Myanmar and arrived as the boats were bringing their punters back in.

Not ones to miss out we sat ourselves on the bridge edge and caught the last half hour of light and basked in the dusk. Us, the last of the tourists, the young couples (singing to their girlfriends as they looked all twinkly eyed and love struck up at them) and the monks.

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These particular monks were especially excited to see us, asking for photos and stopping to talk, even wanting to partake in a selfie.

Loving it!

Loving it!

It has to be said that in comparison to the rest of Myanmar Mandalay felt very lack lustre and inspired little in me except a will to leave. If however you’re there looking for food Shan Ma Ma on 81st St between 29th and 30th is really good for food, we went there 3 times and it’s a gorgeous family run place with amazing cheap food and a lovely host!

In line with the Orwell trail we made a dash out of Mandalay for a trip up to Pyin Oo Lwin for the cooler climates and to admire this hill station of the north. This features heavily in the book ‘Burmese Days’ and I was excited to pick out some places from the book. There’s still a British charm that lingers over the town like an Elephant in a rather small room.

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The charm that seems to haunt this fully reclaimed town almost felt unnerving even though the refreshing air and wider streets felt like a chance to breath after the tainted smog of the city, the old colonial buildings and typically cheesy English-esque flower displays merged with the hustle and bustle of Asia and the calls from market stall, was almost an assault on the senses and sent me reeling into a confused yet intrigued frame of mind.

One minute squeezing through crammed market stalls with exposed meat next to kids toys and winter blankets, next thrown onto horse drawn carts to Botanical gardens, I felt like Alice having just fallen down the rabbit hole.

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Just one postcard perfect photo...

Myanmar: Bagan – Temple Fever

Bagan to me is like an Asian fairytale, temples and Pagodas (littering) the vast landscape to a point where turning a corner brings you upon another of these eerily regal, sometimes decaying time capsules.

Some of the most iconic images of travel in Myanmar is the balloons over Bagan as the sunrises. For me this had long been on my travel bucket list, it had also always been on the opposite end of the spectrum to budget backpacker and verging on too much for your average flashpacker. But Bagan had me within its fairytale clasp and it was afterall my birthday… that’s justification right?

I have been lucky enough to bear witness to dozens of beautiful sunrises and sunsets over the past months,over the sea, behind mountains, I could put together a pretty convincing portfolio of such natural spectacles but I’m going to say this right now. Watching the sunrise in a hot air balloon was the most epic experiences of my life.

Just one postcard perfect photo...

Just one postcard perfect photo…

 

... after another

… after another

And some very happy fliers

And some very happy fliers

As the fans started up filling the balloons my stomach started to flutter, when the fire started further inflating the balloons tge pyro in me ignited (pun not intended) and by the time we were told to get in my stomach was doing backflips and my cheeks were hurting already from all the smiling. It was already shaping up to be a perfect birthday and the sun wasn’t yet up.

Our vintage bus and queue of balloons

Our vintage bus and queue of balloons

Add in the fact that the people were amazing who we shared our little basket with and it finished with Champagne Breakfast and a group of strangers enthusiastically singing Happy Birthday my day was shaping up pretty well.

Cheers

Cheers

While the temples draw you in there is a plethora of things to do to break up the temple crawl.

Laquerware is renowned here and the are are traditional houses still using handmade techniques which I have to say were pretty impressive, if you can prize yourself away from the pretty shiny things you don’t have to buy anything, but the tedious process itself is worth seeing and yeah I bought a jewellery box for all that bling I don’t own.

Drying lacquerware

Drying lacquerware

Mt Popa lies a little outside of Bagan and takes a tour to get to.

On our way we even happened on a festival celebration in one of the villages, our driver, who spoke little English, tried to explain although I fear it was all lost in translation. Instead we just stood in awe of the colour and spectacle of the parade.

You just have to smile too right?!

You just have to smile too right?!

Oo look a pretty cow!

Oo look a pretty cow!

We did it on my birthday and I can’t say it wasn’t entirely for the fact we’d heard of a resort with a cliff side infinity pool and Roadside toddy.

 G&T in the pool darling?

G&T in the pool darling?

You can join the locals taking the pilgrimage up the many steps to the temple at the top, at first lined with many shops selling puja (holy offering) next to tacky Mt Popa ‘I was here’ t-shirts, then filtering off to chilled drink and half way food stall complete with thieving monkeys, yes they will steal your fruit, and yes they will eye you smugly while they eat it. My beloved baby monks also storm these steep steps, taking two at a time as you barely lift your foot one, darts of orange robes and childish giggles.

Running down from morning prayer

Running down from morning prayer

Panoramic views greet you at the top and yes even more gold sparkly things (it’s not bonified Myanmar if it doesn’t have that) but I can’t lie it didn’t blow my mind you won’t be full of regret if you don’t see it.

Golden selfie, obviously

Golden selfie, obviously

Oo pretty gong...

Oo pretty gong…

Now as I’ve said this birthday was pretty up there but as if it wasn’t going well enough already a monk bought us iced pastries a the bottom, like, that’s basically a birthday cake right!?! Yup I’m going with it, a monk bought me a birthday cake and totally made my day!

Birthday pastries with my favourite monk ever!!

Birthday pastries with my favourite monk ever!!

You kind of can’t mention you’re going to Bagan without someone shouting at you in an overly enthusiastic manner “rent an e-bike!!!”. Slight confession… I am petrified of scooters, anything that resembles a scooter or basically anything that has two wheels that is powered by anything other than my own two feet. The thing that I’ve found is though, that I really don’t like being scared of things or not liking foods, over the years I have efficiently trained myself to like coffee and tea (the very idea now is sacrilege), wine, mushrooms. Jumped out of a plane, dived into the sea… now it was the turn of the e-bike!!

Artsy bike shot

Artsy bike shot

It really turned out to be the best way to explore, taking random turnings to deserted temples and making quick getaways from roaming cow traffic jams. Intrusive and garish temples gave way to submissive, unassuming shines and pagodas, some housed great shining buddhas and others adorable puppies. And while I’m always a fan of a Buddha statue, I’m definitely a sucker for a pup, even one that bites your friends ankles!

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One of the bigger temples we stumbled upon

One of the bigger temples we stumbled upon

There are so many temples here it’s a wonder people don’t get lost among the powdering remains and the lovingly kept shrines. Most of the temples here are made of red stone as opposed to the glaring gold that adorns most in Myanmar, somehow it still manages to enrapture the thousands of tourists that flock to this magical state.

If there was one thing I wasn’t such a big fan of it was the amount of sellers crowded in around the temples, I’m all for people making a living but it kind of taints the magic a little when they’re telling you to cover your shoulders then trying to sell you a Buddha head (which is considered very disrespectful), inside the temple walls.

A nicer stall of the traditional puppets

A nicer stall of the traditional puppets

The red stone almost glows as the sun sets at night and rises in the morning bringing the ancient city to life and lovingly lulling it to sleep. 

Romance and magic oozes from it’s very core, it’s enough to make you doey eyed and soppy, sandy hues to in your face greens, it’s the stuff of a photographers dream, every hour is a ‘golden hour’ here. Fortunately for me and my GoPro you don’t have to be a professional here to pull off a good shot, it just throws them at you!

In the evening glow

In the evening glow

It is of course a must to watch the sun set over the temples and as we placed ourself precariously on the edge of a quieter crumbly giant we were kept company and entertained by the local children trying to sell us postcards of the very photos we were aiming to take ourselves.

Just one of our many entertainers. Favourite singer ... Shakira

Just one of our many entertainers. Favourite singer … Shakira

Our sunset perch

Our sunset perch

(note: since visiting laws are being passed to preserve the temples and stop people climbing the temples in order to help preserve them, an act I can’t really dispute, although I’m pleased it’s an experience I got to have)

My time in Bagan surpassed all expectations, even the trek from my room to our roadside showers weren’t enough to disillusion my sparkly memories on this ancient city.

Bucket list = tick

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Myanmar: Hpa an – The caves and Monastery

It seems every time I write a blog post I have to find another way to describe the ‘green rolling hills’, is Asia just a varied plethora of these?

I never feel as though I’m looking at the same landscape, every time it feels so exciting and new and awe inspiring but am I forever going to be searching for new ways to describe this?

Well I would be so lucky. All to soon I will have to find a job and then what will I have to describe to you but the inside of an operating theatre and if I’m lucky the view out the window, I dare say you wouldn’t want to hear about the gory details of the operation itself.

But why I thought (looking over some green rolling hills), should I go back to an operating theatre at all? My own world seems far to big now to squeeze it into a sterile box and hope for a good day, a happy surgeon.

By now I thought another temple with another Buddha (surprise!) would be taking its toll and I’d have to retreat to some culture detox centre on a beach somewhere with a cocktail in hand admiring the surfers scenery, but right now looking out at Hpa-an in Myanmar I’m wondering what I’d do without my daily monk fix.

Hpa An itself is really nothing to write home about, it’s just a small town south of Yangon going about it’s business like every other town on the Thanlyin River, but it’s what you can access from here that has put it at one of the top places I’ve visited so far.

Soe Brothers Guesthouse, made infamous by Lonely Planet (obviously) continue to earn the high praise they are given if not through the rooms definitely through the tours they offer, and so began an action packed 48hours.

Our lazy day ambling down the river from Mawlamyine had been subdued and uneventful apart from the addition of two to our little crew but by the time we arrived we were ready for some excitement and to explore further than the confines of a small fishing boat and well Hpa An is kind of known for it’s ample supply of caves so we piled into our little truck and headed off in search of  a particular one known for one thing. Bats.

Our savvy boat crew

Our savvy boat crew

Millions and millions of bats, they’re little batty senses plucked up as soon as the sun hit that horizon and they were off for honestly about 25minutes, one continuous plume of bats driving it’s way into the evening sky, swarming into synchronised cloud formations int the dying daylight.

The last of the bats leaving home for the night

The last of the bats leaving home for the night

 

I’d left to Myanmar hearing of an elusive monastery atop Mt. Zwegabin, beautiful sunsets, idealic photos to be had by all and maybe (the evidence was sketchy), you could sleep up there.

We took our chances and set of early afternoon and asked our tuk-tuk driver to pick us up just after sunrise so we could make our cave tour.

The entire way up we played a semi relay with a group of locals also making the ascent, it was good to see it wasn’t only us that struggled with the heat or the copious amount of stairs for that matter.

That evening we watched the sun set over a beautiful rocky mountain setting as the sky turned from blue to a golden kaleidoscope of colour, with pagodas in the foreground setting our scene. The ladies from the surrounding huts cooked tasty vegetarian curries for only 5000kyat and we slept in cell like rooms on just bearable beds, when we finally got bored of the starry skies and late night monk praying… the puppies may have also played part in this distraction.

As far as last minute decisions this had to be the best yet, the feeling of gratitude and continents was just overwhelming and I fell in love with Myanmar all over again.

Totally worth the climb

Totally worth the climb

A blurred pic of our candle lit dinner

A blurred pic of our candle lit dinner

A monk playing protecter to the runt of the litter

A monk playing protecter to the runt of the litter

Late night monk meditation

Late night monk meditation

The cave tour the next  day was haunted by buddhas at every turn, red and gold painted buddhas carved high into cave wall along with elaborate stories of the buddhas journey and of course the elusive hairs.

All leering eerily over us as we traversed slippy little winding paths into expansive back caves, as the day passed I expected to be caved out but each one proved to hide it’s own little secrets, mostly Buddha related but also leading onto large lakes and a surprising boat ride at the end of one.

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Group Cave!!

Group Cave!!

At the end of one of the caves

At the end of one of the caves

Defying gravity with this monastery atop the rock, in the background is Mt Zwegabin

Defying gravity with this monastery atop the rock, in the background is Mt Zwegabin

Front seat on our underground boat trip

Front seat on our underground boat trip

My photos of my couple of days in Hpa An could of gone on forever, I just couldn’t fit all the beauty and serenity in this post and if you’re after a bit of cheap beer and  laugh with the locals then ‘Lucky 1’ in the centre is pretty nice as is ‘Khit Thit’ across the road. Being my ditzy (read slightly tipsy) self I left my phone in Lucky 1 and the guy returned it to me the next day. Lucky in deed.

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Myanmar: Mt. Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock

The south of Myanmar is often sacrificed on the traveller’s itinerary in favour of the more popular north, unlucky them… lucky me!

Mt Kyaiktiyo is home to The Golden Rock, there’s really no explanation needed, it’s a rock and its most definitely gold.

You start your journey in the sleepy but kind of beautiful town of Kinpun, which is where we stayed, turns out this isn’t necessary and many people just come for the day in passing but we quite enjoyed our little stopover.

Village streets

Village streets

Climbing a tower of shaking steps to board the early pick up truck to the top of the mountain, I nod in greeting to my fellow trip makers, they nod and giggle in return, orange robed monk next to Wolf hoody teen, rowdy bunch of Burmese guys in front arms locked around their awe struck sweethearts. Looking back I think they knew what was coming… they were giggling because I had no idea.

This pick up truck belongs in the terror section at Alton towers not on a mountainside in Myanmar.

Bodies pressed tight together, at first an inconvenience now a safety feature as our bodies rose off our seats and leaned comically from side to side as we wound our way to this sacred pilgrimage site.

Another packed truckload, just one of hundreds that day alone

Another packed truckload, just one of hundreds that day alone

Knees shaking, I disembarked, I stopped myself short of kissing the floor and merged into the throng of early morning worshippers and handful of tourists, the stunning landscape now becoming apparent on solid ground.

Haze draped lazily over the surrounding hills, reluctantly disapating in the early sun and small temples and monasteries birthed monks to the crowds collecting their alms along with holy men muttering their hypnotising chants. All around wafts of freshly fried snacks and incense started to infiltrate the senses and an excited buzz seemingly increasing as we weaved through the crowds.

A view from the top, post traumatic trip

A view from the top, post traumatic trip

Collecting alms

Collecting alms

Why is it that seeing these dudes in orange never gets old #monklove

Why is it that seeing these dudes in orange never gets old #monklove

A string of small monks cut off our path as they sleepily plodded single file to beg for food donations and we started the main ascent only to be stopped mere steps in by a stout woman pointing at my legs in a disagreeable manner. Leggings it would appear are unacceptable, the outline of my knees apparently more offensive than the bared stomach of the overweight man who barged past mere seconds before, thus continues the bizarre belief system.

Collecting the days food in front of the main gate

Collecting the days food in front of the main gate

Newly adorned in my delightful bright lunghi, I am deemed ‘appropriate’ to continue and I rejoin the myriad of people ebbing closer to the main event, not all are as able (or willing) and the ever resourceful Burmese have come up with ways to alleviate people of their belongings, and their elderly to rejoin them at the top.

Large baskets carrying along picnics and tents for the days pilgrimage

Large baskets carrying along picnics and tents for the days pilgrimage

Your chariot awaits me lady...

Your chariot awaits me lady…

The Golden Rock marks the spot where, yet another, of Buddha’s hair was placed, apparently he was quite frivolous with his gifts of hair cos I swear they’re bloody everywhere in Myanmar. None the less I’m quite thankful as apparently it’s this little spiritual hair that has kept this rock perched precariously on cliff edge for centuries despite numerous earthquakes and storms which have toppled much sturdier structure. It does inspire the question of whether or not there is some magical property keeping it there.

It is this that brings many pilgrims of devout faith here daily and the top of this mountain that I imagined to be crowded and small is actually quite vast and full of makeshift rentable shelters for families who stay for days at a time, especially around the full and new moons.

Securing the right space for a family picnic

Securing the right space for a family picnic

Makeshift shelters lining the pathway

Makeshift shelters lining the pathway

Maybe it was the perfectly blue sky. Maybe it was the energy from excited men, women and children. Maybe it was the excitement of a travel dream come to life but when I (finally) edged to the railing to catch my first glimpse of the golden rock I let out an excited squeal, much to the amusement of two boys to my left and the disgruntlement of an old guy to my right. I’m a traveller that collects cultural landmarks like a magpie collects shiny pretty things and I can only let the pictures do the talking, because I felt quite speechless.

A natural phenomenon or spiritual miracle?

A natural phenomenon or spiritual miracle?

View...

View…

 

Prayer bells

Prayer bells

Everyones a photographer here

Everyones a photographer here

Only men can place gold leaf on the rock, presenting a flurry of men each competing to place their mark on the rock higher than any other or as far under as possible, it’s really a miracle the bloody thing hasn’t been pushed off if I’m honest.

Who can get the best spot?

Who can get the best spot

Mt. Kyaiktiyo is one of the must sees in Myanmar, how many people can say they’ve seen a giant boulder perched perilously on a cliff edge covered in gold?  Not many. But not just that, this beautiful pilgrimage site offers a glimpse into a devout belief that hasn’t yet been turned into just another tourist attraction. It’s beautiful and more than a little bit magical.

Lone Monk making the long descent down from his pilgrimage walk. I'll stick to my death truck thanks

Lone Monk making the long descent down from his pilgrimage walk.
I’ll stick to my death truck thanks