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Newsletter » Letters from the past » India and Burma 1995
Marg and I took the month of February away, leaving after the Chinese New Year and coming back a week into March - 28 days to be exact, - and traveled to India and Myanmar (Burma). Landing first at Madras we spent a couple of days there, going into the country on one of them to have a look at Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram, two country towns, one with a lot of rock wall carvings and the other a Hindu town full of old temples. The country roads weren't too bad, but driving with the continual use of the horn, while the city traffic at that stage we thought quite bad. Little did we know there was worse to come! Madras being on the seashore had a big beach market each evening with many junky items, plenty of fishing boats and not too much crowding of the streets and pavements. Not a bad a town over-all, with some old British buildings to add colour. Onto Bombay, the city of urine smells. It smelt like this all over! Not so much rain as the other cities to wash it away! We landed at night, and had a quick trip to the Hotel, then next day, not quite realizing where we were, took a taxi into town to the Tourist Bureau, - 1 1/2 hours later through congested, hot, smelly, noisy, polluting traffic we finally made it there. I must admit that after that we quickly learnt to use the local trains, which had women carriages, were very crowded, but cheap, quicker and kept your blood pressure lower! A quick trip in a motorized rickshaw at this end and we were back at the hotel at the end of each day. Not a good hotel, even though it was Holiday Inn, and we ended up eating next door each night, for the same price, but a lot better quality and service.

Our second day there, Marg and I went in by train, and she went to jump into the women's carriage, I was meant to jump into another part of the train, and then meet at a certain station. Needless to say I couldn't get on due to the crowd, we missed each other at the station, so we ended up spending the day apart in Bombay, finally meeting back at the hotel. We were better organized the next time!! Saw the Gateway of India there where the last British troops left from on Independence, did some shopping and had a pretty good look around the city, which we did mostly on foot. Quite hot and dry here with temperatures around 36 oC, so walking around looking at their parks and monuments was very tiring in the heat. There was a lion park on the outskirts that we went to, bought a ticket for their safari bus, but wouldn't leave until 8 more people arrived, so we ended up by paying for all 10 tickets (total S$5.00) ourselves and having an empty bus. As it was the first trip of the day, we did actually see the 5 lions that they had in the park!

Next saw us in New Delhi, at another Holiday Inn, - this time the food was good but the service was very bad. More beggars here and at one of the temples a lot meet at dusk for alms, in which Marg and I got caught up in one evening. Quite scary actually, when you do not know their reaction to foreigners out walking alone through the middle of thousands of beggars. From here we did a trip to see the Taj Mahal in Agra, where we spent two nights, then onto Jaipur for a night, - the pink city, - and also to Pushkar, - a very holy Hindu lake town near Ajmer, - for another evening, Very scenic, with the hotel being right on the waters edge, and all the temples around the opposite side of this small lake and their music and bathing added very much to the atmosphere of the place. Back to Jaipur and then onto to Delhi to catch our breath! Agra also has the famous Agra fort and another mausoleum that predates the Taj by 100 years, which has much nicer inlaid work on it I feel.

Jaipur has the Amber Fort and the Pink Palace and the whole of the inner city is in this pink stone. Quite good shopping here, but the beggars on the main streets were incredible! New Delhi has the Red Fort that is also very impressive, as well as the palace and Government buildings built by the British and looking like an old Roman mini city. And every city and the countryside is filled with pagodas galore!!

Marg was getting over a flu virus at this stage, while I had gouged my leg slightly at the Amber fort, but our stomachs were still OK, although we were eating less and less, due to not always stopping for lunch. Most of the food was OK, although you had to pick your places. The Hotels usually charged astronomical prices in the main cities, while the smaller hotels you skipped in the country towns, and found nicer restaurants near by! By this stage we were getting a little tired having been traveling by car for five days and sight seeing quite a lot, so onto Calcutta for three days of hopeful rest. Not to be!

Our Hotel was right in the middle of the city, and the room was not available, so round to a local guesthouse we went, which was filthy, smelly and otherwise totally unpleasant. It was probably here that my leg and a scratch on Margs' arm totally infected up, and Marg also got an ear virus, which was very painful for her. At the end of our India stay and we got caught with the bugs! The Hotel was very quaint when we finally moved in there the next day, with it being built in 1827 or so, was full of old artifacts, big, big rooms and set English style meals, which were appreciated at this stage of the trip. Calcutta, a city even more out of control than the others we had been to. There are many homeless people and beggars, terrific poverty, crowding, dirtiness, noisiness, pollution and general mayhem. Words sometimes fail to describe the sights and sounds of these cities, especially Calcutta, although we have met a lot of people who reckon Calcutta is their favourite city.

After having been in China, India was not that much of a shock to us, but we did notice a couple of big differences. I think the people in India are a lot poorer than in China, but they are certainly personally cleaner, although spitting the betel nut juices is common all over. The Muslims wash five times a day on entering their temples, while the Hindu's are always under water having a wash, even if the water is filthy, they will still clean themselves. The place tends to be colourful, as even the poorest women have their colourful Sari's on, and the people are more friendlier, although there seems to be some resentment creeping in towards foreigners now. The traveling is easier in India, probably due to the better English, and having dealt with the British for so many years and generally the local restaurants serve a reasonable standard of food. A couple of good books to read to give an idea of India is "Calcutta - the city revealed" by Geoffrey Moorehouse and "No full stops in India" by Mark Tully.

Next part of the trip was to Myanmar, where the first shock is to change US$ 300.00 each into local FEC, even if your trip is prepaid! Luckily we used ours to pay for a trip up to Mandelay and Lake Inle for a few days, where we always got to the places where we were going, but the flights left at 8 - 8/30 maybe and finally took of at ten! Quite a clean place, hot and dry though, and the people are very, very friendly. The military were always helpful and not aggressive at all, the main streets were organized, wide and planted out, and the hotel is of a quite good standard. The side streets though do go from single lane tarmac to dirt tracks and the houses likewise, from sturdy dwellings to rattan walls. One problem we did have was finding places to change traveler's checks, as we were down to our last FEC on two occasions, and the country runs on cash, including all of the country places we stayed at. This time we flew between spots, and as all the flights were in the morning (5 am calls!!) we had most of the day at our destinations. Mandelay was a little disappointing, after having such a romantic idea in my head as to what it would be like, and it turned out to be quite dry and barren and a fairly ramshackle sort of place. We did take a trip around a couple of the towns quite close so enjoyed the country side and also took a ferry ride cramped up with about sixty people on the Mandelay river down to Mingun, a riverside town with friendly children who persisted in holding our hands to show us the sights! It didn't seem to matter to anyone when we ran out of fuel in the middle of this fast flowing river or that we broke down on the return trip and floated around for about half an hour until repairs were done. Mind you, when we got to Inle Lake and were traveling to the town on destination, the local train had also broken down, (daily occurrence!), but right across the road crossing. Never mind, people just got down of the roofs and cars and trucks, and stood about talking and smoking until the train was ready to move again! In India at their crossings, they close the gates 15 minutes before the trains arrive, so a similar scenario, but the buses and trucks stopped there are inundated with hawkers selling snacks and drinks and so on.

I asked our driver why the trucks in India only traveled at 20-30 km per hour, and his answer was that at faster speeds, when suddenly stopping, one front wheel goes one way, the other disappears in the other direction and the truck ends up somersaulting down the road! We did see some bad accident results and also many overloaded trucks there, but they do not have any time schedule and will cruise from New Delhi down to Bombay in anything from 4 days to two weeks! Similar scenario in the Post Office when we tried to post a couple of packages from New Delhi, and were still trying 1 1/2 hours later when they closed, to try again in Calcutta, and to end up carrying the packages back to Singapore by hand! Back to Inle Lake, which is a very shallow depression in the ground, being able to see this large lake bottom at all paces, but also full of floating vegetable and flower beds, canoe rowers who use one leg to row with and villages built out all over these very shallow waters. A simple hotel, but dinner was avocados, (just in season and straight from the market), fresh fish from the lake (caught that morning), and strawberries also bought that day at the market. What is fresh and available they get, and so do you. An excellent meal! Burma is mainly Chinese cooking though, with their local cooking being mainly a few curry dishes with rice and soup, eaten with the fingers, and not very available in the restaurants around the country. They have "Visit Burma Year 1996" coming up, but I do think even though they are nice people and a great country, their infrastructure will let them down a bit, plus this thing with the money. Most people I know travel with Credit cards or Travelers checks, and not thousands of dollars cash in their pockets!

One thing we did successfully do in Yangon, was find a competent local doctor who pretty much cured our ills, although I think it will be a couple more weeks still before my leg fully recovers, although Marg is fine now, and just tired in getting over the trip. Me, I didn't have that luxury, as I was back to work the next day, but with a little less weight, more colour and a little fitter. The camera worked over time as we ended up with 36 times 36 exposures of film to develop, which we will have to sort through, and a few bits and pieces of souvenirs, including a handmade silk Cashmere carpet (small one), a few pictures, shirts, marble statues and other bits and pieces. The normal tourist stuff actually, but all to add to the other collection back in New Zealand, for eventual unpacking when we finally settle down somewhere!

Willi and Marg