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Good morning Vietnam

My original plan for Vietnam was always to head up to Haolong Bay for New Year. No particular reason other than the pictures that I’d googled looked fantastic. However, travelling needs flexibility and heading to North Vietnam for this one thing seemed like it would be expensive and time consuming and after hearing from Laura-Lynn on Christmas day that it wasn’t that great if you didn’t have the weather I thought the last week of my travels could be better spent somewhere else.

I was researching what I could do in Southern Vietnam and coming up with a few things that looked interesting, but I wasn’t keen on bouncing round from place to place in my last week – I wanted something more chilled out as I’m back at work the day after I arrive in London. As I was eating my cheese omelette for Christmas dinner my eyes started wandering around the restaurant and landed on a travel board which advertised different local activities, one in particular caught my attention. Scuba diving.

It’s been five years since I first tried scuba diving. I remember it being a lot of fun but unfortunately I didn’t get to complete my PADI qualification due to bad weather stopping our open water dives. Who would’ve thought there’d be bad weather in December in the English Channel? I had a year to complete the open water dives following the training I did but 2010 was a year of travel so I couldn’t squeeze it in. The opportunity had come back around though and I started Googling potential locations in Vietnam. The first dive school teaching PADI that came up was Rainbow Divers, with a couple of locations across Vietnam and being open for twenty years they seemed like a good choice.

I was still running low on cash and with $51 in my wallet and had to get this sorted when I got to Ho Chi Minh. My hostel lottery didn’t work this time and although the dorm and bathroom was semi accessible there were fifteen steps I had to climb to get to reception. Another trip to the cash machine later that day was met by another failure to withdraw cash. This was getting slightly concerning so I got on the phone to Barclaycard. After a ten minute conversation with someone who was fairly unhelpful I found that I had almost reached my limit on cash withdrawal on my credit card. I could get out another £110 and that was it. I’d previously tried to withdraw more hence it not working. So my immediate problem had been sorted but that money wasn’t going to last me for the full week if I wanted to do anything other than sit in the hotel. I decided to carry on with my plans and work something out later on.

I contacted Rainbow Divers and found out a bit more about what I needed to do next. I was pushed for time so I’d have to get on it. I needed to complete the online theory course that would take the best part of a day then get up to Nha Trang which was a day on the bus complete three days of diving then get the bus back. It could be done and would leave me a couple of days in the city when I got back. The next day I sat in front of a computer studying diving theory which is definitely not what I wanted to be doing but if it meant going diving then I consider it a necessary evil.

Booking into the hotel recommended to me by Rainbow I was impressed to see a level of accessibility that I’d not seen since I was in Bangladesh at the accessible accommodation at the CRP. It was getting late but I thought I could set off round town for a quick look round and grab something to eat. Taking several random left and rights I found myself in front of place called Local where I stopped to take a look at the menu which seemed like it was what I wanted. I sat down at a table looking onto the street when a guy came over and started chatting the usual tourist talk. Getting into the conversation I found out this was Mr Son, the owner of the restaurant. I noticed that they accepted credit cards at this place and thought that Mr Son could be the person to help me out with my lack of cash. I asked him if he could charge a couple of hundred dollars to my card and then give me cash back which he agreed to without batting an eyelid. What a legend. My money troubles had been averted and I could get back on with enjoying my trip with one less thing on my mind. It wasn’t the last time I’d see Mr Son as his restaurants were both served really good food at a decent price and I became a regular over my time in Nha Trang.

The next morning I went back to the Rainbow office to meet up with Serena and Cameron who would be teaching me the skills on the PADI open water course. We filled in the necessary paperwork while we waited for the doctor to come along. The call out doctor was great, taking my pulse and checking my heartbeat before signing me off as fit to dive. The $15 I paid for the check-up was considerably cheaper than the $150 I was quoted in Ho Chi Minh. When the paper work was done we set off to the pool where the initial training would take place before we went to the sea.

Getting back in the water with all the gear on was fantastic and just as fun as I remember it being. I’ve always been a confident swimmer so diving and moving around underwater wasn’t a problem. The first time I tried this I was told that teaching me to dive was like teaching a fish to swim. Everything went well in the pool session and after completing the training we were set to go in the sea the next day.

Diving days are an early start, meeting at 7am at the office. Luckily for me this was just across the road from the hotel. We set off on the bus to the docks and ten minutes later we were there. In terms of accessibility the docks weren’t too bad; I had ramps all the way down to the boat – which was another matter entirely. Like every other mode of transport over this way, I was on the floor lifting myself to my seat, then to the back of the boat for the dive area. This was nothing compared to putting on a shortie wetsuit while sitting up on a moving boat, I did it but it took a good chunk of the 45 minute journey to the dive site to do. With no changing room there was a balancing act of getting on the wet suit while attempting to protect my modesty. I think I was successful at that.

Over the next two days I did four dives and had an absolute blast. Diving is so much fun and just left me wondering why I hadn’t done this sooner. According to Serena I was taking to this like a natural and it certainly felt that way, apparently I’m the first person she has taught that has taken off their mask and regulator for a photo on their first dive. The two days flew by and I was now a PADI qualified open water diver meaning I can go anywhere in the world and dive. This wasn’t enough though. I’d had so much fun over the last couple of days, I was sure this was something I’d keep up and decided to take a step further and do my advanced open water diver course which would take an additional two days and mean that I could dive to a depth of 30 metres as opposed to 18 before.

There was a bit more theory work to do but there were also more interesting dives including buoyancy, search and recovery, underwater navigation and deep diving. Over five days here, I’ve managed nine open water dives and have gained three qualifications – Open Water, Nitrox & Advanced Open Water. But much more importantly, I’ve found something that I enjoy doing and will no doubt be doing a lot more of in the future.

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Diving here in Nha Trang has been a brilliant way to end what has been an incredible (but exhausting) six week trip in Asia. I’ve met some great people, tried so many new thing, seen a lot of fantastic sights and pushed myself more than I have in a long time. It’s been a long time since I’ve been travelling but this has reminded why I love it so much. My sense of adventure has been reignited and I’m already thinking about what I’ll be doing for the rest of this year. Watch this space.

Christmas in Kep

Before leaving Phnom Penh there was one more thing that I wanted to check out – the killing fields. I knew the story about what Pol Pot had done but there’s definitely a sense of reality that’s brought by walking round the compound where the massacres took place, seeing the graves, listening the stories told first hand by survivors on the audio tour, the clothes and skulls that still come to the surface after it rains.

I won’t start a history lesson on what happened in Cambodia in the late seventies, but wandering round the killing fields and seeing it first hand was heart breaking. I left that place in a sense of bafflement, I’m not saying that there is ever a reason to kill, but for the leader of a country to kill so many of his own people over so many years, for no other apparent reason than to secure his place at the top of the food chain is beyond comprehension.

After spending the morning around the killing fields, I jumped on a bus in the early afternoon and headed for the coast as I didn’t like the idea of spending Christmas in the city. After a relatively short trip of four hours down to the South coast of Cambodia I arrived in Kep. There weren’t many choices as to hostels in Kep so I played the odds on what the pictures looked like online to get the best for accessibility, I chose a place called Oasis which was a little out of town but looked okay. When I got there I found that the path around the complex leading to all the rooms was in fact tiny gravel which made pushing through it a nightmare. The staff there were friendly enough and as they hadn’t got the reservation I’d made and had let out the room I had booked they gave me a free upgrade to a huge bungalow.

Christmas day started with a nice lie in which is exactly what I needed after the recent travel days. Opening the front door of my bungalow, I found that even though I was all this way from home Santa hadn’t forgot about me and there on one of the patio chairs was a small cracker made out of newspaper – I opened to find a Kramer, a Cambodian scarf. I thought that was a very nice gesture. After breakfast at the resort, I got a tuk tuk into town hoping to find somewhere that would be worth exploring. By this point in my travels I’d started running out of cash and needed to find an ATM, with my debit card lost in Thailand I was planning on using my credit card to see me through and it had worked fine in Phnom Penh so I wasn’t worried.

The first cash machine in the town centre was out of cash which was a let-down, but there was another cash point on the edge of town so all was not lost. Outside of the ATM I started chatting to a fellow traveller who was exploring Kep alone today. Laura-Lynn had just got into town and was exploring on her own just like me so we thought we’d grab some Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner consisted of a cheese omelette. Laura-Lynn was over in South East Asia on a trip with business school, being retrained after retiring from being a pilot in the US Air Force – very cool.

After hanging out for a little while with Laura-Lynn I decided to get back on the trail of the ATM. The tuk tuk driver from earlier was knocking about so I got a lift with him. In hindsight I shouldn’t have done this because I felt I got ripped off for the journey that we took, especially as my card was declined at the next cash point. With only $71 left in my wallet I figured that the it was time to move on and getting to a big city would be the best chance of getting some cash, if not then it would be more likely that places would accept credit cards and thankfully mine was still working. I booked a bus ticket for Boxing Day that would take me to Ho Chi Minh and my sixth and final country of this trip, Vietnam.

Say hello to my little friend

Early morning on the 20th I was waiting at the dock ready to leave Don Det and it seemed like everyone else had the idea. There was a mass exodus with about fifty people all leaving for the 8am boat that would start us on our journey to Siem Reap, including the kayaking team from the day before which meant there were a few familiar faces.

When crossing a border it can usually go one of two ways, they can make things incredibly difficult or make it very easy, thankfully at the border crossing into Cambodia it was the latter. Needing a visa on arrival I approached the wooden hut to hand in the relevant forms. There were a couple of steps into the hut so I moved around the side of the building where I could see the immigration officers sat at their desk. I started to wave at them and shouted “Hello!”, immediately catching the attention of the one sat closer to me. He came over and asked for my form, took a quick glance and asked me for the $35 processing fee then went off and did all the leg work for me, bringing me back my passport with the visa inside.

After a four hour delay getting on the next bus at the border, there was a nerve-racking ride down to Siem Reap with a driver who had no concept of a reasonable speed, even on pitch black roads while talking on his phone. As the bus parked in the bus station at Siem Reap we were greeted be a hoard of tuk tuk drivers who were all very keen to offer us assistance and find out where we needed to go. I had no idea where I was going. A German couple from the kayaking trip were heading into the centre and I thought that was a good a place as any to start looking for somewhere to stay. The place they stopped at was a bit expensive, so I asked the tuk tuk driver, Sariq, if he knew a budget place. He drove round a couple of places that didn’t have space or weren’t very accessible until we got to the Balaha hostel and for $10 I got a private room. Sariq had been helpful, had a friendly attitude and spoke good English so when he offered to take me on a tour of Angkor Wat for $15 the next day I agreed.

We set off around 10am and after a quick stop to buy a new camera we were at the ticket booth. To buy a ticket to get into the grounds you needed to have a picture taken to ensure there was no passing around tickets, before I had a chance to start getting out of the tuk tuk, Sariq had already reversed up to the counter so I could be photographed from my seat. This followed him getting the salesman at the camera shop to come out and show me cameras and was how the rest of the day was going to happen.

The temples are impressively enormous and equally inaccessible. I did think for a small time about lifting myself up the steps to get a better look around inside but I was quite enjoying sightseeing from the outside and it did mean that I got to see a lot more of the smaller temples that weren’t being crowded by tourists. There were quite a few times when we got to places that the tuk tuks were not allowed to go past but security let us through after Sariq had a word with them. Sariq was a reformed ex meth dealer, but in my books he was a good guy.

Sat in the back of the tuk tuk in the shade all day, I’d not been thinking about how much water I was drinking. While I’d been drinking coke and ice coffee to keep myself cool I’d not had any water and this was apparent as soon as I got back to the hostel and the same sickly feeling that I had felt back in Bagan. The heat had got to me again. I was getting sick, lost my appetite and couldn’t even keep water down. I decided to get an early night ahead of my early boat ride to Phnom Penh the next day.

When looking at things to do out in Cambodia, I found a shooting range at one of the army barracks that was near the mountains just out of town. While I’m not a big fan of guns, I was definitely curious about checking it out and this seemed like a one-off opportunity that I should probably not pass up. I was picked up from the hotel and driven along with an Aussie couple to the barracks. We both had a similar list of what we wanted to fire: AK47, M16, M60 (Rambo gun) and a bazooka. After a couple of emails that I’d sent to Steven, the guy organising the trip, he had agreed to set up a straw hut to shoot at. When we got there, the straw hut had indeed been set up – with a drum of diesel inside.

As there were two of us wanting to fire the bazooka we tossed a coin to see who would go first, he was star, I was elephant. Elephant landed face up. I crossed the sandy terrain to a lower part of the embankment and I was passed the bazooka. I placed it on my shoulder and secured it in place with my left hand. They wedged me in with branches beneath my wheels as my brakes are slightly knackered and told me that there would be no kick back when I fired which I was relieved to hear.

I lined up the sight with the diesel can which was tough to do with having the weight of the gun on my shoulder and not much balance. I had the target in my sight and waited for the green light. The general said “Fire!” I pulled the trigger, *click*, nothing happened. What a let-down. They told me it was a dud bullet and threw it to one side – that’s right, threw it! I got a reload and lined up my target again. I pulled the trigger and the rocket launched. It was a couple of seconds then boom! It was a direct hit and the hut blew up.

It was a fast visit there shooting a couple of rounds and ultimately quite expensive, but it was fun. The video shows me firing the weapons, which was actually pretty tricky with my balance, all except for the Rambo gun which was comfortable as I was sat on the floor and it was on a tripod. This next video was made by Steve, the guy who organised the trip to the shooting range and has some great slow motion clips.

Kayaking down the Mekong River

Fitting Inle Lake into my travel plan was going to be a tight squeeze and it was. I had to be in Yangon for 6am on Monday for my flight to Laos. My first choice of getting there was by bus, but with only night departures I’d have to leave on the same day I got to the lake which didn’t appeal after having no sleep the night before. The flight to Yangon was $120 and got me to the airport 12 hours earlier than my morning flight.

After a smooth flight from Yangon via Bangkok I arrived in Vientiane in the early afternoon. I made my way to a hostel that I’d found on the net claiming to be accessible. It wasn’t. This wasn’t going to be a big deal as I was only there for one night and if I decided to stay longer then I could always find somewhere new. The hostel was near the night market so I went for a wander to go and see what was on offer there which wasn’t anything new. It was fairly standard tourist bit and pieces so after a quick look round and a pineapple smoothie I went back to the hostel for a game of pool and a beer. Chatting to some of the people there who had been around Laos for a couple of weeks I got the impression that Luang Prabang wasn’t going to be worth a visit and to head straight down to Four Thousand Island instead.

Not wanting to spend too much time in Vientiane I decided to go to Buddha Park which was a tourist hotspot. There were some ancient looking statues that were impressive at first glance but the whole place was only set up in the 1950s and for me it suddenly lacked authenticity, like it was put there solely to draw the tourists in. Having said that, I really like the kind of statues and I did enjoy the hour or so I spent wandering round until the taxi driver was due to take us back. Afterwards I went looking at a few buildings whilst searching for somewhere that would change my leftover Myanmar Kyat to US dollars. My favourite was the Victory Gate of Vientiane which on an information placard described it as being designed on the Arc d’Triumph but looking like a concrete monster when you got close.

Later on that day I got on the overnight bus heading for Four Thousand Island in the South of Laos. For a bit of extra comfort I went for the sleeper bus, which was quite short and each double mattress was designed for two people to share. This could mean that you had to spoon with a stranger for the eight hour trip – thankfully I had the bed to myself. After a mini bus ride early on the next day we arrived at the docks that would take us to the island. This dock was about as far from accessible as could be and required some steep back wheel descent on a hill, getting pushed through impossibly thick sand and balancing on two planks of wood to get to the boat that would take me to the island.

I hadn’t booked anywhere on Don Det and started going from one guest house to the next looking for somewhere to stay. After hearing that the sunset side of the island had great views I went for the appropriately named ‘Sunset Hostel’ for $8 a night, a little more expensive that some other places but it was a private bungalow that had a bathroom as well so I was fine with that. The sunset views from the balcony were fantastic and looked like something that you would see in a travel guide, I definitely made the right choice when I picked this hostel.

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My first day on the island was very chilled out. I walked up and down the main road, found a nice Indian restaurant to eat at and spent some time chilling out on the hammock – that’s the first time I’ve been on a hammock and it was pretty relaxing, that could have been down to the stunning view though.

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The islands didn’t have the best roads to get around on but it was possible. I figured the best way to see the island would be on water, so there was then the choice of motor boat or kayak and kayaking sounded like more fun. The guy selling the tickets seemed a little bit concerned about the overland walk between the two waterfalls but I figured I could always ride with the kayaks on the tuktuk if it was that bad. The day out on the water was less than 20 quid so I decided to go for it.

Woke up early and headed to the bar where breakfast was included and had banana pancakes (Jack Johnson song playing in my head). The bar which sat on the river had a long wooden staircase at the side of the building that led to the water. I shuffled down the steps and with the kayak set in place onto that. It was an open top kayak and I didn’t feel very stable in it from the outset. It was a double kayak so I was sat with the tour guide and my chair was tied down behind me. I crossed my legs instead of having them stretched out and this seemed to give me more stability. There was no back rest on this so I was still a little bit wobbly.

We set off down the Mekong River, weaving in and out of the little islands that were dotted around, going past the buffalo on the banks and snakes in the river. Although the lack of back support made things tough I felt I was doing alright. What they failed to mention when I booked this trip was that there were rapids on the river that we’d be passing through. Don’t get me wrong, they were  nothing major but with how unstable I was on the kayak it made it slightly nervier going through them. Not wanting an early morning swim I stopped paddling and held on as we passed through the rapids.

The fact I was trying to be careful going through the rapids and avoid a swim didn’t really matter as a couple of hundred metres downstream I dipped my paddle in too deep and the current dragged over the side of the kayak. This was a little bit worrying because we’d already been told that there were snakes in the river, so I was quite keen on getting back onto the boat. Getting back onto a kayak without using your legs is tough to say the least. This was a skill that I’d never had to learn before so it was a case of trial and error. Pushing down on the side of the kayak didn’t work as I started to tip the entire thing over. I swam to one of the nearby islands, in the shallow water the river bank would support some of my weight and pushing off one kayak either side of me I was able to get back in.

It was a hot day and the water was warm so it would have all been a bit of fun except for the fact that my rucksack had come in the water with me and now I had a waterlogged camera and wallet – bit of bad luck but not the end of the world. We again set of and after a couple more rapids we arrived at our first stop. This was the point that person who sold me the ticket was concerned about. I lifted myself ten metres up an embankment with someone behind me giving me directions on how to avoid bird shit, fish heads and the head of a rat that was in my path.

We found ourselves in a small village and getting back in my chair I was eager to see this road that caused the concerns when I bought my ticket. We made our way to the first waterfall and the paths were a bit rough but solid which made pushing over them easy. The closer we got to the falls, the more uneven the ground became, but still fairly easy to get over balancing on my back wheels. When we left the first waterfall the surface of the path got a lot worse. It was covered in rocks varying in size making getting across very difficult.

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There were two ways that I could move forward over terrain like this. The first was to move very slowly and let the casters bounce over each rock, this would make a bumpy ride and constantly pushing against rocks was going to be tiring. The second option and the one I went for was to remove the casters from the equation and balance on the back wheels as I moved forward. While this is still tough and requires a lot of concentration, it was going to be a smoother ride than the former.

What I didn’t account for when I decided to go along this rocky path on my back wheels is just how long it was until we got back to the kayaks – it was over a kilometre easily. In the heat of early afternoon and having not eaten since breakfast I was starting to tire quickly, as the ground had gotten a tiny bit better for a rest thought that I’d give the back wheel balance a rest and push forward on all four wheels. It must have been another 50 metres before the cable ties holding my footplate in place snapped. This was going to be a problem. I had spare cable ties but they were back at my room. I asked someone to go ahead and find the tour guide and ask if he had any rope to do a temporary fix until I could get more permanent repairs done. In the meantime I decided to continue forwards, by going backwards.  I turned my chair around and started pushing backwards with my feet dragging along in front of me. This wasn’t easy but worked for a couple of minutes when I got a length of rope to tie the footplate back in place. It wasn’t a perfect repair in terms of placement but it was going to hold out until the end of the day and that would do for me.

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After going to watch dolphins near Cambodia Island we headed for lunch. Landing at a beach with a huge dune leading up to the barbeque area and tired from all the pushing, I opted for lunch in the kayak. It was a chicken roll and watermelon on the menu, which was good but I was too tired to eat. I decided to lay back, pull the farmers hat (that I borrowed from our tour guide) over my face for some shade and get some rest.

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Today was really starting to take its toll with all the kayaking and rambling, by the time we finished lunch I was starting to feel it. The lake felt like it had turned to glue and every stroke was sapping more energy that I didn’t have. Our final stop of the day was at the waterfall Khone Phapheng.

Docking on the beach where we would get on the truck to take us to the waterfall I was confronted with what can best be described as a cliff – the kayaks were getting carried up and I’d need to get up there to continue the journey. It was a sandy path so steep that as well as there being no way of pushing or lifting myself up, people weren’t going to be able to push/lift the chair up as the sand didn’t allow enough grip. Then some bright spark came up with the idea of me sitting on one of the kayaks and getting lifted up that way, the bigger perimeter of the kayak would mean that more people could help and it worked like a treat. I find that one great thing about travelling is that people always seem to go the extra mile to help you out when you need it.

Khone Phapheng waterfalls are the biggest in South East Asia and very impressive to see. Close to the Cambodian border in Laos they were a great goal to aim for as we headed down the Mekong River. There were a couple of tourists looking around and taking pictures when we arrived there but it still seemed like a very untouched place, with only some very basic viewing points to look on from.

Paddling back across the lake to end our day, we got to see an amazing sunset to finish what had been one of the most challenging days of travelling so far. Getting out of the kayak, it was just one flight of stairs to lift up then it really felt like it was over. Another great thing about the day was how well the group had got on, so we arranged to meet up later on for a couple of well-earned beers and a burger at my island favourite, the Reggae Bar.

Central Myanmar – Bagan and Inle Lake

I’d booked three days at the Yaga youth hostel before getting to Yangon and because of their cancelation policy I couldn’t get the money back for my last night, that’s thirty bucks down the drain but on the plus side it meant that, still feeling ill, I could chill out in my room later than the midday check out time. As I checked out I asked the girl working on reception to call a taxi for me. She looked a little confused at first, which confused me, then walked over to a girl who was sat in the lobby and said that she had a ticket for the same bus going North to Bagan. It made much more sense to head there together and split the fare.

The taxi turned up with about two hours to get to the bus station, allowing for traffic and check in time on the bus which gave me plenty of chance to chat. Karishma was from Hong Kong and after deciding to quit her job as a recruiter for a law firm, she had spent the last couple of months travelling, going to Australia, Sri Lanka and India to visit her grandmother. She had arrived a day earlier for her first time in Myanmar, where she was planning on staying for a week before meeting a friend in Chang Mai. We got chatting our travel experiences then we got onto our plans for the next week, finding out that we had randomly both booked the Blazing hotel in Bagan.

Bagan was 10 hours away and we were due to arrive at 5am. I’d booked a ticket on the ‘VIP’ bus up to Bagan which I knew wouldn’t be much more luxurious that the standard bus, but for an extra one pound fifty I was will to risk it for a few extra perks. I take it as given that the buses over here will never have any inkling of accessibility, but I’m happy enough to lift myself up the steps to the front seat and the staff will give me a hand with the stuff I take on with me, which usually includes my chair cushion, pillow, jacket and small rucksack. Spending the extra money on the ‘VIP’ bus ticket was definitely worth it, I got a reclining seat with a footrest that didn’t have another seat next to it, there was a neck pillow and blanket hanging over the seat.

It was a fairly smooth bus journey and I managed to get a couple of hours kip before we arrived at Bagan early the next morning. I waited with Karishma for a taxi that the hotel had organised to pick her up from the bus station, after twenty minutes we decided it wasn’t coming and started to haggle with local taxi drivers to get a good deal to get to the hotel. We got to the hotel around 6am and talked to the receptionist about the possibility of an early check in. The rooms were empty and we paid an extra twelve dollars to check in early – this was money well spent as with a few hours sleep the next day was going to be a lot easier. I got a free upgrade from the standard to superior room as it was located on the ground floor.

Over breakfast the next morning, Karishma and I decided to go and visit some of the pagodas and maybe take a look in town later on. Instead of paying for each individual taxi ride as I’d done in Yangon, it made more sense to hire a taxi for half a day (ended up being more like seven hours) which was going to be twenty five dollars, split by two it turned out to be a real money saver. The pagodas in Bagan were brilliant; they were smaller than the ones I’d seen down in Yagon but looked less restored and more authentic – there were a lot less tourists which a more comfortable environment to explore in.

 

After looking round a couple of pagodas we decided to use the taxi to have a look round the town, as it turns out Bagan is quite a small town and there wasn’t much to see. It was mid-afternoon by now and realising that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, decided to go and get a late lunch and a couple of beers. Looking at the map, there was a place called Sunset Garden that looked like it would be a good place to go as it was on the side of the river. We got some noodles at the restaurant then drank until the sun went down. It was an amazing place to watch the sunset from, after the tourist group had left the place was silent and you were able to hear birds calling from the distance. The clear, still water of the river that appeared not to move, reflecting the fiery colours of the sunset as they slowly disappeared over the mountain skyline. It seemed like a shame to leave but the taxi driver came in and we realised that we’d gone past the seven o’clock cut off point. Back at the hotel I managed to get my head down for an hour before we went to a local place for more drinks. I got a couple of drinks down me before I hit the wall, my head started spinning and I was feeling really fatigued – this doesn’t happen very often, if at all, so I went back to the hotel to crash out.

The next morning I was feeling a lot better as I ate breakfast, then out of nowhere my head started spinning again. The only thing that I could put this down to was heat stroke from the previous day when I’d spent a lot of time out in the midday sun, done a lot of work transferring in and out of the car and probably not drank enough water. I wouldn’t have expected to feel like this the day after but here I was. This put me in a bit of a predicament as I really wanted to go to Inle Lake before I left Myanmar and I had a flight booked for the following Monday meaning that the only way I was going to fit this in was to suck it up and take the bus that night. I was feeling like shit and had heard that it wasn’t the most comfortable ride to Inle as there was a mountain pass that could get a little rough. I lay on my bed and tried to get as much rest as I could before I checked out and would have to make my decision on what to do.

I took all my gear to reception still feeling like crap and checked out. I still wasn’t 100% what the best thing to do was but I wanted to make the most of this trip and decided to just go for it. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Even though I knew it meant I would be cutting it close with my flight out of Myanmar, I booked my (regular) bus ticket and sat in reception where it was a bit cooler and I could get a bit more rest. I must have looked really sick just sitting there, falling asleep on my arm because they kindly gave me my room back until the taxi came later on. I took advantage and went straight back to bed. After some pizza and fries in the afternoon, six o’clock rolled round and while I still wasn’t feeling great, I was much better than I’d felt first thing that morning.

The bus ride to Inle Lake from Bagan was due to be ten hours and after setting off an hour late it meant we should get there for 6am. This was easily the worst bus journey I’d been on in a long time. The best comparison I can draw is the overnight bus I took from the Nepalese border to Kathmandu a couple of years ago which was a mess. It was clear that the driver had done the route to Inle a couple of times before and knew he could put his foot down, a lot. We were overtaking everything possible and getting bounced around like we were in a maraca . I remember looking at the other buses that we were passing and being envious of what a smooth ride they were having. After chatting to some of the other passengers later on, it seemed like everyone had managed to get a bit of sleep, but because my balance isn’t great, every time he slammed the brakes on, turned left or right I’d slide in a different direction which meant I had to stay awake and holding on for the duration.

Thanks to the drivers eagerness/fearlessness we got to Inle lake at 3am, this didn’t really help me as I hadn’t booked anywhere beforehand. Luckily, I wasn’t alone in my lack of planning and had spoken to a couple, Chris and Maggie, from Australia earlier on who had nowhere to stay either. Jan and Bastion were Swiss students who were in the same boat so we all decided to jump in a taxi and start going round the hotels seeing if there was any space available. The first two we stopped at were a no go, the first was too far out and the second one had no rooms available. The third was looking good, they were near the centre of town and had rooms on the ground floor for twenty dollars – the only problem was that they didn’t have any rooms available until 8am. We all felt this wasn’t a major issue and stopping here for a while was preferable to trekking round more hotels in the hope of finding something better.

The Golden House appeared to be a family run business and they were incredibly accommodating from the moment that we arrived. Straight away we given Wi-Fi access and the best coffee that I’d had so far in Myanmar, exactly what I needed as I was really starting to flag at that point. A couple of the guys asked if there was a toilet to use, the chap on reception invited them in to his flat next door to use his bathroom. His dad later came through offering us his room to rest while our rooms were still unavailable – this generosity was something that I found to be symptomatic of the Myanmar culture.

It was 5am and we were all wide awake after the coffee earlier on. Chatting to the family we were told that today was the floating market, something that was on only once every five days and it was going to be starting at 6:30am. The rooms weren’t going to be ready for another couple of hours and one of them would only be ready at midday so we all decided that it made more sense to head to the market first thing and that way we could get away early as well before the hottest time of the day. The hotel organised a boat for us to go out in that would cost $20 for the day and could fit five people on which was perfect as it meant we would only pay $4 each for the full day on the boat.

We arrived at the dock and saw it was a small, flimsy wooden structure and was only accessible by two shaky looking ladders. Luckily I had help from Chris, Jan and Bastion who lifted me onto the dock and from there it was an easy transfer down into the boat. I sat in one of the wooden seats on the boat and my chair slotted in front of me nicely. Everyone jumped in, the motor started and we were off.

It was instantly clear that we had chosen the right time of day to go to the market because despite being a bit chilly, especially for me sat at the front, the morning mist that was still lying on the river added an element of mystery and looking over to my left I could see an amazing sunrise that was just coming over the mountains in the distance. The river led to the vast expanse that is Inle Lake, this early in the day it was empty of other tourists, just boats transporting food and fishermen that would pose as went past. Despite the last few days that had been trying, I already knew that pushing myself to come here was going to be worth it.

It took us a good 20 minutes to cross the lake and on the far side we joined another river that led us up to the market. We docked the boat and I clambered up a couple of giant steps then started to explore the market. The market was set outside a pagoda and lines of stalls formed a covered circuit to walk around and filled with the kind of things that you would expect to find there, little nik-naks like bits of jewellery, Inle Lake t shirts and statues of Buddha. It was great to hear that all the people on the stalls had picked up a little bit of English that they’d say to you as you went past, “Just looking?” they’d ask. I found the same thing with the kids selling post cards, they would come up and ask where I was from, and when I told them England every one of them would say “England? BBC. Lovely jubbly!”.

We had to cross the lake again to get to our next destination and on the way we passed through a village built on the lake, the houses were all on stilts and the only way of getting about was by boat. It’s quite an incredible thing to see and I wondered how the increase in tourism would affect what must surely be quite a delicate infrastructure, it could help them build it but it could equally be taken down quite easily.

It was impressive to see different parts of the culture that had been reserved for so long as was our next stop to see the Kayan women. These women are from the Kayah region, south of Inle lake and they still practise the tradition of placing brass rings around the necks of young girls so that they get stretched, most people are with familiar with the giraffe women in Africa but the Kayan women have been doing this for 200 years and it is symbolic of the dragons from ancient times. The rings are placed on girls in their early teens and start with a weight of around four kilos; they only get changed another two times up to a weight of seventeen kilos.

The last couple of days have been nonstop and a lot of effort with throwing myself about so much but easily some of the best time that I’ve spent travelling so far. The people in Myanmar are really friendly and bend over backwards to help you out, there are some absolutely stunning locations that are packed with history and culture. I can definitely recommend this place and feel lucky to have got here before the increase in tourism has managed to change it too much.

First impressions of Myanmar

Before leaving Thailand, there was one last spanner to be thrown into the works when my debit card was eaten by a rouge ATM. It’s not an issue right now as I’ve got enough dollars (the universal currency) to keep me going for a while and then I’ve got my credit card as back up. The card got cancelled straight away online but due to bad internet connections I’m still attempting to organise another to get sent out.

Bangkok Airways have quickly become my favourite airline to fly with. When flying from Chiang Mai to Yangon a couple of days ago, we were on a small plane, only two seats on either side of the aisle and this meant that there wouldn’t be an accessible walkway for me to get on the plane easily. This wasn’t ideal but fair play to them, they asked if they could lift me onto the aircraft. This definitely isn’t my style, but I begrudgingly agreed. When I saw there were only six steps or so up to the plane I told them I’d prefer to lift myself up onto the plane, which they were fine with. The flight was just over an hour but I still managed to fit in coffee, cake and a couple of beers.

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I had no idea what to expect from Myanmar, a country that has only really opened its borders to tourists in the last couple of years. We landed at a small airport; small considering it was an international airport at least. The staff that came to help me off brought an aisle chair with them which made things a lot easier getting to the exit, but they seemed perplexed when it came to getting me down the stairs. I saved them the trouble, getting on the floor and sliding down the stairs. With one of the staff helping me with my bag we made our way through the airport.

We passed a toilet with the standard disabled logo on, written next to it was ‘Invalid’. This isn’t the first time I’ve come across the word invalid being used when I’ve been travelling, when I took the train across Kazakhstan, the lifts at some of the stations were referred to as ‘Invalid access’. This is obviously a massively out dated and at home, offensive term. It’s not great to see it being used when I go travelling, but at the same time, I was happy that they had accessible toilets unlike when I flew out of Dhaka. The next sign really confused me. Just before I got to immigration, there was a disabled sign again but this had ‘seaman’ next to it. I still can’t get my head round that one. Answers on a postcard please.

Hostel world hadn’t said that the accommodation that I’d booked was going to be accessible, but with the limited options available I decided to go for the one that said it had elevator access and I’d work around everything from there. There were two steps into the hostel and four up to the lift. The room isn’t huge but comfortable and I have an en suite bathroom which makes things more comfortable, despite not being accessible. I always find that when bathrooms aren’t accessible, it’s always better to have these struggles in private as opposed to the chance of people walking past in a shared situation.

The staff here at the Agga youth hostel are very friendly and helpful, saying that I can call reception if I need any help. I don’t know if I’m surprised by this, but maybe it’s an insight into their culture’s attitude toward disability. I asked for directions to the town centre and the best place to get a taxi from and set off. Getting a taxi was probably easier than I’ve ever found it before. I know that sometimes chair users can hail down taxis and get ignored, but here I didn’t even raise my hand to call them over, they saw me waiting at the side of the road and pulled in.

I got dropped at a Pagoda in downtown Yangon and started to explore. There were limited drop kerbs and when I did find one, it would be half crumbled or blocked by a car. This meant walking at the side of the road which a lot of other people were doing. I stayed looking around the immediate vicinity of where I was dropped off and found my way into a park. When looking at the monument at the centre of the park, one of the locals came over to say hello. He was telling me that he had just finished studying tourism at college and now was a good time to visit Myanmar because a lot would change quickly now that the borders had opened. He recommended a few Pagoda’s I should visit, a good restaurant that served local cuisine and where the night life was.

Hungry, I made a move for the restaurant that had been recommended. I walked down the narrow 29th Street looking for Daw Saw Yee and after a couple of hundred metres I had all but given up but just over the next junction I saw the sign like a homing beacon. I was tempted to go adventurous at this place when I saw mutton brain on offer but they had none left. Instead, I went for the safer option of chicken curry and some of the local Myanmar Lager Beer. They handed me the bottle so I could have a look to check if this was what I wanted, it looked good from the outside and so I went to open it on my brake (essential wheelchair skill) and see the confused look on their face, then impressed when I unveiled the open bottle to them. The food was really decent sized portions but a little bland compared to what I’m used to. The beer was going down nicely so I decided to go for a second.

It was pitch black by the time I left the restaurant at half past seven and I decided that it could be interesting to push back the two kilometres to the hostel. The streets were buzzing with stalls set up down each side of the road selling phones, calling cards, accessories, food and more. Earlier on I’d been told that the place to go for a beer was China town down on 19th Street. The roads weren’t marked well enough for me to make out the signs at this point and I kept going until a junction made it easier to make a left.

As I walked down this random street, I saw a sign that said ‘Beer, Music’ and thought, well I like beer and I like music so I might as well check it out. There was a promoter for the bar sat outside who I guess was there to drag in the punters and show them to the unmarked lift to the bar on the fourth floor. I went into a dimly lit room with a trail of red LED lights around the top of the wall and an un lit stage, a little bit seedy but I thought I’d see how things unfolded. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes the guy sat on the electric piano at the far back of the stage started playing away and a woman came to the centre of the stage and started to, I’m not sure what it was she was doing but it’s a stretch to call it singing. It was like watching a bad karaoke session of songs that I couldn’t understand. One after another the girls kept on coming up and belting out these tunes that were out of tune. There were one or two that were showing an improvement but I figured it was my 5% Myanmar taking effect and wasn’t enough to keep me in there for any longer than I needed to be.

The following day I decided to check out a couple more pagodas as the tour guide I spoke to the day before made them sound like the highlight of the city. I started with a pagoda on the riverbank that dated back more than two thousand years. It told the story of two merchants that had travelled to India to meet Buddha when had become enlightened and asked for a gift from him. Buddha had given the brothers 8 strands of hair which they brought back to Myanmar and place in the temples after building them.

In the centre of the pagoda was a star shaped corridor with walls that were engraved and covered in gold leaf. The walls were 12 feet high and connected to a golden ceiling. There was a monk sitting around one of the corners. I stopped and pointed to my camera, asking him if it would be okay to take a picture. He nodded and I took the snap. I looked at him to say thank you and he pointed to another monk that was sat to my left. The second monk moved the arm of his robe to reveal a little pile of money. I could take the hint. It seemed that even the monks had got on board with the new element of tourism in Myanmar.

Schewdong pagoda was my next stop and was a little further out of town. At over 2000 years old it was of a similar age to the first pagoda I visited but this place was massive. There were hundreds of little temples, shrines and statues surrounding the main pagoda and from the number of people there it seemed to be a hit with the tourists. It was clear that there had been a lot of restoration work done here, maybe a little too much to the point where I felt it had lost it’s authenticity. With cash machines dotted around and wifi available, it seemed like it had stepped too far away from what it was built as.

Pushing away from the pagoda, I noticed that my tyre was starting to grind slightly against my side guard. I had a look to see what had happened and saw that one of the spokes had been ripped out of the hub. I didn’t think this could happen with Spinergys as they’re made of titanium. I’m not sure when it happened either, I guess it could have been when I flew in from Chang Mai and I just didn’t pick up on it straight away with everything else that was going on. I’ll look for a local garage over the next couple of days that might have the tools I need to make a temporary fix.

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It had been an absolute scorcher of a day and was pagoda’d out. I wasn’t feeling great back at the hotel and crashed out for a few hours. Needing to be in close proximity to the toilet, probably because of something I ate, it seemed like a smart idea to have a chilled last night in Yangon before I took a bus up to Bagan the following day.

Off roading

I had an 8:30am train to catch from Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok and had arrived with plenty of time after I had accidentally hailed a cab instead of taking the metro as I had planned. As the other trains pulled in I could see the complete lack of accessibility, these trains must have been forty years old easily. That didn’t bother me too much, it’s fantastic when things are accessible, but when they aren’t you just have to be flexible with you expectations.

The three carriage train pulled in on time and I headed for the carriage number two. As I headed toward the door, one of the stewards came to meet me, helpful as ever which is what I’ve become accustomed to in Thailand. I transferred onto the lower step, dismantled my chair and passed it up to the station guard who was now stood behind me. I climbed the steps and got back in my chair. Thankfully the first section of the train was wide enough to fit my chair through which meant I could go through to where the seats were even though it was a bit of a squeeze. The porter asked to see my ticket, which I promptly handed to them. She pointed at my seat number, 22, then pointed down the train. The seat next to us was 79. The aisle way down the train was too narrow to fit the chair down so I tried my luck at getting a closer seat so I didn’t have to drag myself along the floor for what would have been the best part of 25 metres. They gave me a seat on the second row which was perfect.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai was going to take 12 hours. I decided to take the train as opposed to the hour long flight as I thought seeing more of the country would be interesting. I missed the first half of the day after catching up on sleep from a late one the night before – the Therma-rest folding pillow is a great bit of equipment for sleeping on trains or even in hostels when the pillow is made out of stone. By the time I woke up, the scenery had changed and we were now passing through a mountainous region that was almost jungle like in its appearance. This was getting exciting and I knew that I’d made the right choice by heading north instead of going to the beach resorts in the south.

The new hostel, Mojito Gardens, wasn’t as accessible as I might have hoped but nothing that wasn’t possible with a few transfers and wheelchair skills. Rooms, both private and dorms, were spread out around the central courtyard which seemed like it would be a good place to get a few drinks on a night. My first day here was spent looking around the old town, checking out one of the historic temples and what the street food had to offer. The first temple that I found was painted with bright red and gold, I guessed it was a fairly new development. Over this temple I could see the spire of what looked to be a much older temple. The second temple was much older than the first and closed to tourists, not that this made a difference as the first wasn’t accessible either.

As I was sat enjoying a couple of pints later on in the evening, a boy was running through the bar dropping flyers on each of the tables. I picked it up and saw it was for a Thai boxing event – 7 fights and gambling sounded like it might be worth checking out. The venue wasn’t big, more of a warehouse with a boxing ring in the middle. This was ideal for me as it meant it was completely accessible – except for the toilets, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The evening started with some local music played on a wind instrument, this really set the mood before the fighting began. The fighters came on and the ring lit up, there was a strong smell of wintergreen in the air and the crowd started cheering. Thai boxing is a lot like kick boxing, but most of the fighters were primarily using their fists. I’d paid an extra 200 baht for a VIP ticket which meant ringside seats. The fights were clearly about the sport as opposed to the violent nature some of these sports take on, I was surprised about the level of respect shown by the fighters to each other; maybe this was because the venue seemed to be more of an underground fighting arena and I was expecting something more brutal. One of the strangest fights of the night involved four of the fighters in the ring at once. They all sat in the centre where the referee blindfolded them, they all stood up and started swinging, hoping to hit one of the others. This must’ve been incredibly disorientating for the participants, the referee took a couple of hits and was quick enough with the payback!

I was only going to be in Chiang Mai for a couple of days and wanted to make the most of it. So on my first day, I visited the tour operator to see what I could in the local area. There’s quite a lot on offer, hot air ballooning which seemed a bit risky, elephant farm/safari which I’d done before in Nepal, a shooting range that could have been fun, a tiger enclosure which really didn’t appeal to me – they said that the animals hadn’t been drugged but I imagine a domesticated tiger is a sad thing to see. In the end I chose to go ATV off road quad biking. I got the tour operator to call through and reserve me a place in the morning, she mentioned I was in a chair and that wasn’t a problem. I thought they were using automatics. I thought wrong.

The next day I got picked up and taken about 20KM out of the city, through winding roads that showed off some of the amazing jungle scenery I was introduced to on the train ride. We pulled into an area about the size of two football pitches which was the base for the company. There was a guest house, about 8 quads from what I could, a track to practise on and one very miserable looking caged eagle.

We started the induction to driving the quad bikes and it was clear straight away that these weren’t automatic as I’d originally been told. Their solution to this was to have someone else drive me around, which I was having none of. My solution to the gear changing issue was to duct tape (very useful stuff) a couple of poles to the pedals so I could change gears with my hands. They didn’t like my idea so we settled for when I needed to change gear, I would pick up my foot with my right hand (left hand is on the clutch) and push it down to change gear. I’m not sure if this was safer than my hand control idea, but there you go.

I went round the practise circuit a couple of times to warm up. I’d like to say it all came back naturally but it didn’t. It took a while to get used to but I got the hang of it and after progressing and completing the advanced course, they felt confident enough to take me out into the jungle.

Early morning trips aren’t that popular with tourists (possibly because of drinking the night before) which is why I managed to get a space the day before; this did mean that I was on the excursion alone with the instructors. We set off with a comfortable cruise down the road for about half a mile before taking a right onto the dirt track. The roads were rough as we started to climb to the summit of one of the hills. I was doing my best to concentrate on what was going on in front of me while trying to take in the stunning scenery that all around.

We stopped at a small village that has been home to a group of Chinese immigrants living in the hills for 200 years. Passed some American missionaries doing their best to convert the locals while reading from what appeared to be a phrase book, from the blank expression on the face of the woman they were speaking to I don’t think they were very successful. After doing what I’m sure was customary for people passing through, listening to a sales pitch for cheap purses and buying the kids sweets from the shop, we hit the road again.

Driving through this dense woodland was nothing short of spectacular. Not just for the views, but also for the fact that this kind of exploring is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Admittedly, it was always the Amazon that I thought I’d explore, but this was a fantastic substitute. After about 3 hours of crossing rocky roads, dense woodland and rivers, we headed back to base. This was a brilliant high to end the visit to Thailand on. I’ve only had a very brief introduction to the country but I look forward to my next visit and exploring the places I missed out this time.

 

Creatures of the night

Other than the flight being delayed, leaving Dhaka was a smooth operation. I got on a small plane with wider aisles going through first class so I managed to take my chair all the way to my seat. Tricky transfer but definitely preferable over getting dragged along in a standard aisle chair. As the ground worker took my chair away I had a feeling that I might not see my chair again in one piece when I get to Bangkok. On a previous trip I watched them throw my chair about from the other side of the glass next to the conveyor belt and found the frame had been bent. Anyway, long story short, my chair was there to meet me on the plane when we arrived and it was in one piece – possibly helped by the ‘fragile’ stickers that had been placed on it.

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I have to say, Bangkok Airways were great at serving drinks on the flight considering we were in the air for just over three hours. I managed to get through two gin and tonics with the more wine being offered, I would have made more of an effort but as we only set off at midnight I decided to get a bit of shut eye. I found some Wi-Fi at the airport and started look for a hostel. At the top of the list was the Phoenix Hotel, it looked decent, cheap enough and apparently wheelchair accessible. Tick, tick, tick. As luck would have it, it was also the closest to the airport and in 15 minutes we were there. As I’d not booked it took a while to get the room ready but by 5am I was flat out. The only downside to the room is no accessible shower which was easily fixed using one of the stools that was hanging around the room.

The first day was spent wandering round one of the main shopping areas, which was fairly inaccessible. There were a couple of steps going into each of the shops and getting across eight lanes of traffic was difficult because a lot of the bridges didn’t have any lifts. There were a couple of times when a dash across the road was necessary, made possible by slow moving traffic in some lanes and drivers slowing down to let me cross – the driving etiquette is on the other end of the spectrum from where I’ve just come from. I’ve arrived a couple of days before the king’s birthday so there are celebrations for that, some of which I came across on a random visit to a park.

In order to look around a bit more I jumped in a taxi which over here is a motorbike with a long seat on the back, the equivalent to the Indian tuk tuk or the Bangldeshi CNG but more powerful and with roads moving a bit more fluid, you can really pick up some speed and the drivers aren’t afraid to. I’m torn between what the transport highlight was, the taxi or the boat ride down the river today. The rail system over here is pretty good as well. It’s the fastest way to get around by avoiding the traffic and fairly accessible. It’s not as accessible as some of the transport systems I’ve seen in Taiwan, Korea or Japan, but the staff are great – even when the only access is via an escalator, they stopped people using it then got two of their people to hold me in place while we went up. At one station they even reversed the direction of the escalator so I could get down! Transport for London could really do with taking a page out of their book.

On the way back to the Phoenix I got off at Ladkrabang, the local station. I remember seeing on a map that it wasn’t that far to the hotel so I decided to walk. Big mistake. It was pitch black by this time and I was going down roads I didn’t know and a direction I wasn’t sure of. I checked with a taxi driver for directions to the hotel when I exited the station, he looked it up on his phone and I went on my merry way.

Now, the hotel is pretty far out of town, near the airport and in an area that isn’t that built up. I quickly noticed that this meant there were a couple of street dogs roaming around the side of the road, which wasn’t a big deal, I like dogs and I rolled by and it started to bark it didn’t phase me.

After about ten minutes of pushing down a dark road I stopped to ask for directions from two older guys drinking beer at a café (wooden shed) at the side of the road, but the language barrier thwarted my initial attempts to get help. Luckily, a younger chap with good English, Neksh as I would later find out, overheard the attempt at conversation and came around the corner. I got confirmation that I was heading in the right direction and carried on.

By this point there seemed like there were a lot more dogs laying at the side of the road as I passed, especially at an out of place gated property that I went by. I kept following the directions that were given to me by Neksh which led me past some young scooter boys who were drinking what appeared to beer out of plastic bag. I started going to what appeared to be a dead end and from what I could see there were a couple of dogs on the floor and decided to explore to see if there was another way around there. As I got closer, the couple of dogs that I saw got up and were looking in my direction. Faint rumbles of growling came from their direction and I started to slow down. All of a sudden, more of them appeared. It must have been a dozen in total. All edging towards me. Like I said, I don’t mind dogs but with a pack of a dozen street dogs edging towards me in the darkness I was getting a little worried. They kept on coming closer and I had no idea what to do. As they got closer to me, their faces became clearer and I could make out their snarling teeth shining in the moonlight. There was no way of outrunning them; if they attacked then I was done for.

Something behind broke by gaze on the dogs. I heard some growls coming from behind me; these were slightly different to the dogs though. I spun around and was blinded by headlights coming toward me. The dogs ran off and the scooters that had scared them away came to a stop next to me. Neksh and his friends had decided to follow me and see how I was getting on find the hotel and I was happy that they did. They told me that the hotel was very close and would show me there. I grabbed the back of one of the scooters and we took off, arriving at the hotel in no time.

The hotel was comfortable but equally boring as it so far out of town. Today, I decided to find somewhere more centrally located for my last night in Bangkok. Accessibility is more of an issue at this place but I’m here for one night and there’s actually people here to chat which is a plus.

I headed to the train station earlier this evening to book a ticket to Chang Mei tomorrow. My initial feeling from looking at the ancient relics that were the trains was that it would be a difficult journey. When I entered the station, this feeling was almost instantly turned around with the sheer number of disabled signs everywhere, which in my mind showed that they were hot on the accessibility side of things. Guess I’ll just keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

Bye bye Bangladesh

Every morning at the CRP I’m woken up at 5:30am by the morning call for prayer at the mosque that’s located next to me room. As much as I don’t like waking up that early in the morning, I have to say that the low rumbling of the voice that is chanting away is preferable to the usual high pitched shrieking alarm that usually starts my day.

Showers are something of a novelty as well, as there’s no hot water showering is tipping a bucket (or several smaller buckets) of cold water over your head. This usually feels better in the height of summer when I’d probably take several showers a day but it’s not that bad with the weather as it is. If nothing else, it definitely gives you the equivalent wake up that about six espresso’s would.

When I found out I was going back the CRP for a couple of days there were a couple of things that I knew I was going to have to do. Just outside the entrance to the CRP is a street vendor selling some of my favourite Bangladeshi food, choputi and fuska, so I was happy to see that he was still setting his little cart up there every day at 6 o’clock. He’s a friendly chap who quickly becomes a favourite with volunteers visiting the CRP, cooking the food in front of you and giving you a couple of pieces while you wait.

Fuska are bite size crispy dough shells that are stuffed with potato, peas, onion, chillies, coriander and a few local spices and with a plate full for 30 taka (30 pence) you can’t go wrong.

After the ASCON conference had finished CRP had a new visitor. David Constantine founded the charity Motivation back in the early nineties when he set up a metal workshop here at the CRP so that they could supply patients with low cost suitable wheelchairs. Twenty years on and Motivation is now helping people in developing countries the opportunity get mobile and stay active in their communities by offering wheelchairs and sustainable peer training programmes.

David is here recording a video for Motivation, looking at the impact that the CRP and the wheelchairs from the workshop he set up are having on people’s lives. We took a trip to another CRP centre about 15 minutes away called Ganakbari, originally a residential property for women to get trained with the skills to work in the garment industry, with jobs being guaranteed by Marks and Spencer. Ganakbari had recently expanded and now included the metal workshop producing wheelchairs, special seating unit for children, the wood workshop and the paper recycling facility.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to sit in on an interview that was being done for the Motivation film with a woman called Mina, who had a spinal stroke that left her paralysed. Since her husband was working out of the country at the time, the family of her husband asked Mina to get a divorce therefore allowing her husband to marry again without paying her a support allowance; she was kept inside her in laws home and tortured both mentally and physically. Mina remained resilient and was eventually rescued by her family. Knowing that she would need to bring in money to support her young son, Mina started vocational training at CRP to fix damaged rickshaw/wheelchair wheels and now works in the metal workshop at Ganakbari. The wheelchair provided by the CRP mobilised her through the journey that she had undertaken and without the wheelchair she knows it would not have been possible.

After the interview and taking a look around the facility I decided to go for a wander down the street, looking at all the stalls that lined each side with the fruit, veg and fish covered in flies – all the time working my way through the crowd while navigating over the rough terrain and keeping an eye out for the passing rickshaws and cars. I stopped off for a tea a local shop with our Firoz who had been our guide for the day before heading back to the compound to get a ride back to the CRP. Our transport arrived and it was a pickup truck with rear doors that were clearly too small for me to get into so I jumped on the back of the truck, took my chair apart and enjoyed the ride back to the CRP al fresco.

Today was the final of the basketball tournament that had been run to coincide with the ASCON conference. Three teams had entered and India had taken an early exit leaving Bangladesh and Nepal to play off for the top spot. These two had played each other earlier in the competition where the Nepalese had dominated, Bangladesh would have to pull something special out of the bag if they wanted a different result today, the seventy point win they had on India since that game was sure to give them a confidence boost but would it be enough? Right from the whistle Bangladesh were proving to be the team in control, playing calm and collected, along with a good passing game and making their shots count. Nepal on the other hand were playing sloppier than they had in the previous game, making wildcard shots from outside of the key and rushing their play.

Despite the early lead, by half time Nepal had pulled it back to fourteen all. There must have been something said to the Bangla team at half time because they came back out fighting, putting ten points on Nepal in no time. Watching the game, I could only imagine what the players would be feeling. In a country where disability is still looked down on, they were here getting cheered on by an elated crowd of hundreds of people, tonight this was their stage and they were the stars of the show. The final whistle blew and Bangladesh had won 32-23. The crowd went wild and stormed onto the pitch, gathering round the sporting heroes of the night. White bubbles shot up into the air to celebrate the victory; in a dry country this was more than likely to be 7up which seemed to be the accepted champagne substitute for the occasion. The medals were handed out and there was a real sense of sportsmanship between the teams as they applauded each other on a game well played.

My friend Al Amin had invited me to his home; so far I hadn’t managed to find the time but had planned to tomorrow morning. His little brother Riad came and found me when I was eating at one of the local restaurants (that does a great omelette), telling me that Al Amin was asking for me. When we finished our meal, Riad took us for a five minute walk going through some dark side roads leading us to a big metal gate, behind which were a number of buildings, one of which Al Amin lived in.

Each property had shared bathrooms and kitchens, Al Amin, his brother, mother and father had one room in here which had in one big double bed and at the foot was a single bed where Al Amin was lying. He wasn’t wearing a t shirt and it was worrying how thin he was, rib cage clearly visible and protruding elbow joints. There was a huge scar on his side where I assumed a pressure had got infected. He started talking about how he had learnt to use a computer after I had given him an assistive device to hold in his mouth last time I was here, he spoke of how he wanted to get a laptop but his mother interjected reminding us all that they had no money. We had some freshly cooked rice pudding and a banana, there was more food on offer but that was all I could stomach after having dinner not long before. Riad went through his envelope of photographs showing us various stages of rehab from CRP, with a much younger version of myself appearing from my last visit. Before we left Al Amin asked me to choose one of his mouth paintings to take with me as a present. An exceptionally kind gift from someone who has so little.

This brings me to the end of my visit to the CRP, I’ll be flying to Bangkok to evening and while I’m sad to be leaving, the prospect of somewhere new is exciting. I’ve had a brilliant short stay at the CRP and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back here again at some point.

First couple of days

It was the night before I was due to leave and lying on the floor in front of me were two packed rucksacks and my old wheelchair, solid tyres fitted and footplate held together with duct tape and cable ties. I was a bit worried. I felt a little too prepared for this trip, like everything was in place and that was slightly unsettling. It seemed like I was travelling light, but that was the plan and everything on my list had gone into the bag. As soon as the plane left the ground I was convinced I would remember something of significant importance that hadn’t been packed.

bags n tings

It was 11 hours to get to Dhaka with a 2 hour change at Dubai and a further hour delay when we were on the plane ready to take off. Sleeping was difficult on the aisle seat that I had, I’d nod off in a seated position then lose my balance, start to fall and wake up with a jolt. I’d managed to keep all my bags with me and had my wheelchair brought to the gate to save any messing about when we landed. I got to the airport and made a b line for the taxi rank. It was already six o’clock and wanted to get to the CRP sooner rather than later.

As I got to the taxi desk I saw a bloke stood there with a sign saying ‘ASCON 2014’ (Asian Spinal Cord Network). He approached me and asked if that’s why I was over here. I guess the odds are in his favour asking that question with me being a wheelchair using foreigner turning up in Dhaka at the same time as a spinal conference is happening. Luckily I’d arrived at the same time as the Nepalese basketball team who were here for a tournament to celebrate the conference and I managed to jump in a jeep with a couple health care professionals who were heading in the same direction.

As the doors opened and we exited the airport I was immediately hit full on with the warm, smoggy air that I had become accustomed to on my last trip over here. Everything else reminded me of the first time I was over here. Pitch black night on narrow roads, with four bright lights heading toward us, one truck was on our side of the road overtaking another truck and this wasn’t even 200 metres in front of us. The truck would pull back into its lane just in time. You quickly get use to this style of driving after the fifth or sixth time it happens. The buses look reminiscent of Mad Max with scrapes down both sides, some with shattered windshields and people riding on the roof rack. The reassuring thing is that the drivers over here know what they’re doing; I glance over to my driver to see he is so confident that he’s happy to talk on his mobile as we drive.

I got out at the CRP reception, spent a little time trying to find someone who had my room key then threw all my gear on my bed before calling my friend Sumanta to ask if he fancied catching up over my spoils from duty free. We poured our gin and t’s and sat and chatted about what we’d been up to over the last few years. I had met Sumanta when I was volunteering here 4 years ago. Unwilling to postpone a trip I had planned, I came over with a broken wrist and Sumanta being a hand therapist had treated me while I was here. It was great to catch up with an old friend, something that I was going to do a lot more of over the next few days.

After 24 hours travelling I was up at 7am for the first day of the ASCON conference, it was a bumpy couple of miles to the venue over non-existent roads and arrived at what I would consider quite a lavish hotel for these parts. I grabbed a bit of egg and toast for breakfast before registering and starting catching up with people I’d not seen since my last visit out here.

SAM_5545

Al Amin was 14 when he fell from a tree fruit picking, breaking his neck, causing paralysis and no movement from the shoulders down. I met him in 2010 when he was 16; he had spent 2 years in bed after serious pressures he developed in a general hospital before he got to the CRP and was up for the first time when I was there. The one thing that stuck in my mind about Al Amin was the fact he always had a smile on his face. When I met him yesterday at the conference he told me that he’d been back to school to pass his first set of exams and was now at the Open University to pass his higher secondary exams. About a year ago Al Amin had started mouth painting and from what I saw he’d gotten pretty good at it. He was at the conference showing off some of his artwork. It seemed like he was doing alright, considering the circumstances. He’d had one leg amputated since I saw him due to a sore on his leg that later got infected with gangrene. Despite all this, he still has a big grin on his face.

All in all, it’s been a great first couple of days in Dhaka. It’s brought back memories of my first two trips out here and given me the chance to reconnect with friends I made. I’ll make sure I make the most of my time here before I take off next week.