Blowing away the cobwebs

While Yangon continues to bake, I am finally able to post this, written during my offline Thingyan break in the Luang Prabang hills,10 April 2016

LP April 1

I don’t think I have ever flown quite so close to the hills as we did on the descent into Luang Prabang yesterday afternoon. Even in the many flights I took while in the five and a half years I lived and worked in Nepal, I believe. As we flew northerly across the Thai border into Lao airspace, we passed through thick air which buffeted the little plane alarmingly. As we approached Luang Prabang, we descended below the tops of the hills, so near I could make out the individual trees quite easily. So close that I found it easier to look away than to admire the stunning landscape we were flying through. In no time the river appeared below us and it was reassuring to see that we were in the valley and not headed towards a hillside.

I was leaving Yangon and Myanmar’s Thingyan Water Festival, and Thailand’s Songkran far behind to escape once more into the Laos hills where their Pi Mai water festival would be carrying on in full swing all around but not in the little haven I was headed for.

I finally packed up from work on Thursday evening, heading home carrying a plastic bag with dripping wet clothes, the ones I had worn to work that morning. The clothes which were unhesitatingly drenched by laughing colleagues in the Water Festival celebrations which had been planned. Not an indoor celebration with music and gentle but increasing sprinkling with water as there had been in previous years. The general exuberance which has been in the air since November, and particularly since the new government took over power on 1 April has only grown. This year’s water festivals are sure to see only increased celebrations. This year the party was held outside, so there was no need to be sparing with the drenchings of fellow colleagues. Within minutes of my appearance, I had had water poured over me from all directions and before I knew it, I was joining in with the laughter and water throwing. I still had work to finish and at that point in time, I knew that the only thing I could possibly do was to cross that bridge when I came to it, with all of its water puns intended. My boss and I had headed out to join the fun briefly and returned laughing and dripping, standing in the scorching sun a few minutes to try and take away the worst of the excess water. I remembered my “emergency lyongyi” which I kept in my desk, especially from the days when the taxis almost always had wet seats in rainy season and a change of clothes was needed on arrival at work after a taxi ride. I also had a t-shirt, and so was at least able to change a dry top layer, even if other layers were wetter than soggy.

I left Yangon early the following morning, Friday 8 April, knowing that the airport would be busy but not expecting the crowds that were there already. I can usually pass through Yangon’s check-in and immigration and be heading for a cup of tea in around 20 minutes. The line at even the priority check in lane was longer than I had ever seen there and it took around 45 minutes to get through. The scene at immigration was no less crowded and another half an hour was spent there. Arrival in Bangkok was no less busy – I march in autopilot towards immigration there clutching a very precious pass for the priority lane (oh thank you, Bangkok Airways for recognising the many flights I take with you) and came nose to nose with an official holding a sign which read “Immigration full” and directing passengers to the other immigration section. I waved my pass hopefully, and in response he waved me off in another direction. Immigration was indeed completely full.

My afternoon in Bangkok was spent catching up with a number of tasks personal and professional to take care of before I headed quite literally to the hills and offline for over a week. Offline completely, no internet and no phone signal. That is a rare and precious thing in today’s world. And not fully understood. So I have prepped my email address to send out a message saying that I really truly will not see this, and a message on social media to the same effect. I have left the phone number of the lodge with my immediate family, along with the email of the owner. Just in case. Just how we used to do long ago before we had connectivity on multiple devices in the most obscure of locations.

As I boarded my flight in Bangkok the next morning, I turned off my phone and said goodbye to the outside world for over a week. Ready to greet the simplicity and complexity of nature where I can recharge my depleted energy stores, and allow my creativity to be inspired. Time to blow away the cobwebs and refresh my physical and emotional being.

Pi Mai has not yet started in Laos officially, but all the way up into the hills there were groups of children at the roadside in the villages, with buckets and basins to throw at passing travellers.

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The air of Luang Prabang was as hot and oppressive as that in Yangon and although it cleared somewhat higher in the hills, it was still incredibly hot and heavy. I had slept badly yet again the previous night in anticipation of a very early start and was particularly tired. After settling in I succumbed to the call of the chance to lie down, read and nap. I cannot have nodded off for long, but I was woken by an awareness that the light had changed and taken on a more deep, mellow hue. And then I heard a wonderful, unexpected and sweet sound. Raindrops. Really? If it was raining, there was one thing I had to do immediately. I dragged myself up, pulled out my swimsuit and within five minutes was in the pool. The raindrops had already receded but the air was different, less tired and with a hint of promise.

The pool water was cooler than I remembered from last time, but within moments my surprised skin had recovered and I could luxuriate in the coolness, even though the sun was higher in the sky that it is usually when I swim. Wispy, moody clouds attempting to mask it from time to time and throwing slanted rays of light across the skies. When I climbed out of the pool an hour later, I was convinced it must be early evening and was surprised that the afternoon was still fairly young.

It was barely 6 in the evening when I decided that my hunger could no longer be quelled and I settled to listen to the evening critters sing, and to watch the light change and fade on the little balcony outside the dining area. As I wandered down the path from my room, I passed a strangely shaped spider above my head, working on his cobweb. I paused to watch him for a few moments watching him, thinking to take his picture at some point so I could remember that I had seen such a strange little spaceship-shaped being. There was plenty of time. I have days ahead so no rush to do this when my stomach was reminding it had been many hours since I had eaten.

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While I was eating my meal, I could hear distant rumbles. Perhaps a storm was forming and teasing a neighbouring hillside? As darkness fell, the occasional distant shaft of light would seem to appear, but not for long enough to confirm a storm. Until gradually, the light show increased, and the thunder drew closer. A dramatic performance developed as the lightning threw its beams from different parts of the sky, communicating some message or argument and lighting up the hidden valleys and layers of hillside unseen in the light of day, silhouetting individual trees in shades of silver and sepia. The gentle breeze gathered speed and energy as it too joined the performance and promised more action. And then we heard that noise again. A few large raindrops, gathering speed until we felt the skies finally release some of that moisture it had been cradling and nurturing for weeks. The lights went out, and I could feel the valley smile as nature reminded us who is in charge and holds the real power. I don’t know how long I sat in my own silence, mesmerised by the storm, captivated at the component parts playing out their roles with passion and energy.

No wonder my flight had been so bumpy when the air had been so charged with energy.

Gradually the storm moved towards the next valley and I picked up my sodden shoes and walked up to my room. It was barely after 8 pm and I wanted to sleep. I read for a few minutes before sleep took over with a dream filled sleep.

I woke after around 12 hours after I had drifted off, with no need for middle of the night meditations to distract an overactive mind as I regularly do. I looked out of my window, to a day of promise and tranquility. I could hear the birds and crickets tempting me to rouse myself properly. I caught sight of the pool, its waters still and the sun low enough to throw a little shade.

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As I stepped towards the pool down the path, I glanced upwards at the place where the strangely shaped spider had been busy the evening before. He was gone. There was just one fine strand of fresh filament strung across the space between the branches. The little spider’s intricate web was no longer there, and nor was he.

While just a few branches away, I almost missed a massive, flamboyant spider whose web had survived the storm. Larger than a human head, he sat silently on his web, suspended from a nearby branch. I scurried onward, towards my swim under the watchful eye of one of the biggest spiders I have seen in my life.

Hillside Spider

Oh, I had indeed come to the right place for the cobwebs to be blown away and the mind and body to be refreshed.

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Hiding from watery mayhem on the banks of the River Kwai

Much as I enjoy the lead up to the Water Festivals, and the sense of building enthusiasm and unbridled delight which surrounds us, I have to confess that I tend to retreat from the festivities themselves. In this part of the world there are a number of Water Festivals.  Our Thingyan in Myanmar and Songkran in Thailand are two which I am familiar with.

It is a wonderful release in so many ways, and the water throwing all around brings such relief from the rising temperatures and humidity. And for a day it is great fun. However, my challenge is that the Festivals last for several days. In Yangon, we celebrate four full days of Thingyan and the Myanmar New Year is the following day. So there are five days when everything stops and closes. If you do need to venture out, you absolutely must be prepared to be soaked. Every stitching of clothing and possession utterly drenched. I find that after a couple of days, we inevitably start to run out of fresh food and everything is shut. You have to be completely prepared as nipping out for supplies is just not possible. Firstly because of the drenchings, and secondly because the shops are shut anyway. Everyone is having FUN!

It is a wonderful time of exuberance, and I am glad I have experienced this. But I recognise that for the best part of a week (more if we count the weekend days) that I get a bit antsy if I am not able to venture out, especially for a long cooling swim. In a pool and not at the roadside!

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So my strategy is to find a quiet spot and hide from the watery mayhem. This is not always as easy as it sounds because the other part of the strategy is not to have to venture to far afield. Only one flight if possible, and somewhere where I can find a sheltered haven from the excitement where the essentials are on hand. Essentials being a restful space, food and water and ideally a swimming space. Now, living in a part of the world where we are surrounded by water festivals, this is less easy than it sounds.

Eventually I settled on the notion of visiting Kanchanaburi. It is the town immortalised by the Bridge of the River Kwai film for its place in the notorious “Death Railway”. Coincidentally, I have read a few books recently which are either set in the period of the Railway or actually about it, such as The Railway Man by Eric Lomax. I also realise that I really should have visited the area having lived on the doorstep for so many years. My other reasoning, however, is that I could find a restful space amidst a setting of historical significance and natural beauty and hide from the water mayhem going on all around.

kanchanaburi sceneAnd that is what I did. Kanchanaburi is only a couple of hours out of Bangkok so very easy to get to. I found a pleasant little guesthouse on the banks of the river, where I could relax, read, write, swim and generally decompress in the peaceful, natural setting surrounding me. I was keenly aware of the mayhem outside, with the staff of the guesthouse returning drenched and high-spirited from their forays and the distant thumping of music from further afield. I think they probably found me a little strange in my reluctance to join in, but it was just perfect for my needs. I would have a long swim first thing in the morning before a leisurely breakfast which would stretch into reading and writing time beside the river. I would be distracted by the mynah birds which would play in pairs on the river bank, sneaking over to the tables if they had a chance and dancing around in the frangipani trees.

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As the temperatures rose in the afternoon, I found I had the occasional nap back in my room before an evening swim and dinner again at the riverside. I had absolutely no need nor desire to leave. It is a little strange not to head out and explore but I was not even slightly tempted to head out into the surrounding lanes.

Riverside retreat

Riverside retreat

An advantage of being on the riverside was that I was, however, easily able to venture onto the river and spent an afternoon exploring “safe” dry spaces along the river. How ironic!

 

On the River Kwai

On the River Kwai

 

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And this was where I came nearest to encountering the full Songkran experience. One of the stops on the river took me over the Death Railway tracks and up a hill towards a temple and caves.

Death Railway and River Kwai

Death Railway and River Kwai

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Death Railway and River Kwai

Death Railway and River Kwai

It was a hot and sticky walk and I had mixed feelings when I happened upon the clearing near the caves, and saw that there was major watery mayhem underway but there was also tantalising cold coconut for sale. Coconut water is in my view the single most healing drink in the world, the best rehydration solution ever. I have heard that people who had no access to drinking water, on the Andaman Islands following the tsunami, survived for days on coconut water. Besides it is delicious! I decided not to go into the cave as it meant broaching the boundary into watery mayhem, and instead plonked myself down on a miniature plastic stool clutching a hefty coconut while I drained it of its entire contents of the refreshing water.

Watery Mayhem!

Watery Mayhem!

 

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I returned to the little boat after this interlude, and headed then to the Bridge for a period of reflection and respect.

Under the Bridge over the River Kwai

Under the Bridge over the River Kwai

 

On the Bridge over the River Kwai

On the Bridge over the River Kwai

 

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Kanchanaburi River Kwai bridge

On my final full day in Kanchanaburi, Songkran was officially over and I ventured out and explored the surroundings before returning to Bangkok the following day and homewards to Yangon.kanchanaburi 5

I was properly able to relax and very comfortable with my decision to avoid the watery mayhem. After all, there are times when we need fun and excitement and there times when we need to just be.

Sunset over the River Kwai

Sunset over the River Kwai

Escapism

Frangipani blossom, just landedI knew that this break needed to be a healing and restful one, so with that in mind, stocked up on electronic reading.  Keeps the luggage light and the mind very light too. With this in mind, I loaded up my Kindle with some “light” reading. I am not a reading snob, but my choices for holiday reading might veer towards the “trashy” side.  Nothing like a bit of escape reading when you when you really mean and need  to have a break.

I have mentioned before that I am more of a paper person than electronic in many senses.  I love funky little notebooks, the smell of a new book, the feel of good old-fashioned writing paper (gosh I had so many kinds back in the day), all manner of pens and pencils and the luxury of an old hardback book. I have little libraries of books all over the place.  Many in the loft back in Scotland, a hoard in India and a large overflowing book case with many more stashed all over our home in Yangon.

Wherever I go, I have to have books with me.  And an extra emergency stock, just in case I have a book emergency.  You never know when these things might happen, and must be prepared.

So Kindles are, in theory, a great thing.  I never cease to be amazed at how many books the thing can carry.  And it does not weigh any more and takes up just the same amount of space. Some kind of electronic black magic, I guess.  The best thing about the Kindle however, is that it hides just how many books I have bought, and how “light” some of them might be.  I also particularly love being able to buy books while lounging at home.  More magic.  But I still love real books.  And for Book Club and books I love and cherish, I always have to have a real copy and not an electronic version.  For one thing, the Kindle looks weird with stickies to mark a page, and bookmarks fall out 😉

So here I am, in the jungle, with a great stock of electronic reading and what do you know?  I am still ploughing through book number one.  After more than a week?  This is almost unheard of! I go through at least one book most weeks, when I am working full time and devour book after book at times of leisure.  It is true that this particular “light” book I am working my way through slowly is not a completely engaging read.  I guess it does not help that I have just finished reading “On Writing” by Stephen King so I am picking up on all sorts of distracting flaws in the writing of my holiday read.  As if I have a right to critique – it is always easier to criticise than to create, after all)

No, that is not the main reason for this slow down.  I realise that it is all about escape.  Usually one reason for, or certainly effect of, reading is to escape.  To disengage from the everyday.  To visit different places and experience new things.  As well as following a story, in most cases.

However, I find that the Kindle keeps nodding off, as it realises no virtual pages have been turned. My attention has been taken by a sound from the jungle undergrowth, a different birdsong, the crashing of branches telling that something is on the move nearby, perhaps the langur monkeys or maybe those cheeky wild boars foraging. A leaf tumbling from the tree catches my eye as it is held on some wisp of air and dances to the ground.  Little birds playing above the pool, dipping in as they buzz past again and again.  I am surrounded by such exquisite micro events in a jungle which is teeming with life and activity.  How could I possibly miss any of this by disappearing into a book? SighI am living my own escape at the moment.  It does not mean that I love reading or books any the less, but just that I realise that I have come to this place and must cherish these moments.  I must soak in every tiny detail and hold it tight. I  need to be in the here and now to get the most from this.

Jungle walk from room to brekkie

Jungle walk to breakfastThe books will wait.  I can read these words any time. (Thank heavens Kindles do not go off or perish!)

For now though, my mind will remain focused, yet distracted, here and now in this perfect escape.

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool