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.


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.


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.


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.

Part 3 or so. The Long Wait (continues), over-thinking and onwards

The Long Wait continued….. my thoughts on Thursday 9 April – afternoon….

After the scan – Over-thinking. Or interpreting?

So now I am over-thinking it all. And what’s worse – I knew I would.

The beeps. First of all, those electronic “beep” noises during the scan. The noise just like the one that sounds when an electronic message has arrived in my inbox. I don’t remember hearing beeps last time I had a bone scan. My overdriven mind says it’s an “oh here’s some cancer” alert. It’s far more likely that it is a tone to note the end of that bit of scanning. Try telling my mind that though.

Then the real over-thinker material, which comes as the scan comes to an end. The Doctor asks when I will see my referring Doctor at Samitivej. ALARM BELLS!! I reply, tomorrow or maybe today as I think he consults on a Thursday too. She says she will send the report over. Unless I want to take it with me, she asks”? I rewind back 2 years but with a tweak. Oh heavens no, I think. That would be agony, and I would be sure to open it eventually. Or much sooner. “If you give it to me I will read it”, I reply, and I think I add “and that might not be a good idea. It’s fine to send it over”. She says it will go over, but may take a little time. I must have displayed my fear. She added that it would take 2 – 3 hours after the results come back.

So this time, I do not have the report to look at in the waiting room, and do not wait for it. I do not have reassurance. Nor have I had to read bad news myself. In that open, waiting space where I feel so vulnerable and visible.

The tears came though, not in the waiting room this time. Firstly they came in the taxi, while the driver chatted on about water festival and traffic, seemingly oblivious to my minor meltdown. They came again in the lift as I headed up to my hotel room, and again on the phone. Tears of pressure and fear. I know I am over-thinking. I also know that I am steeling myself, based on the lack of reassurance immediately after the scan. I am sure that they had told me last time back in October 2012, even before I left the scanning bunker, to wait for the report last time, when the technician brought the report to me and I said that I was frightened. She said, then “it’s ok. You can read it”. She obviously couldn’t tell me outright but she nonetheless reassured me. That didn’t happen this time in the 2015 re-run. It could be because of what the scan images say,  and that there is a problem. Or it could simply be that this is another Doctor who has a different way of working.

As I left the bunker, I looked over at the screen and the Doctor concentrating on the skeleton on the screen. I know that I am totally unequipped to interpret or understand anything, but am still ready to put my own interpretation to the picture. From the quick glace I could see a bigger area highlighted. Perhaps my full bladder? Perhaps something worrying at the base of my spine. Right where the pain is.

I walked out of the bunker.

I wonder whether I will get a phone call this afternoon or evening if there is unwelcome news, but in any case I know that in 24 hours or so I will know.

Right now, I am steeling myself for the worst. I feel that there are too many clues which are worrying and not enough reassuring signs.

But then again. Maybe I am just over-thinking again.


Friday 10 April, early morning

When I woke up on Friday morning, I forgot briefly that I was still “waiting”. Just for a second or so, but long enough for a cloak of confusion and darkness to descend.

The morning was long. I arrived in good time at Counter 2 and walked over to get my blood draw.  Straight past friends I know well from Yangon. It is not easy to miss a family of 4, all of whom you know, but that says quite a bit about my state of mind.

And was I glad to hear those reassuring words from Dr W2 in his happy, flowery Songkran shirt. Glad, exhausted and at last I could stop thinking

Water vessels are being filled as I write this, preparations for the various Water Festivals and New Yearin the region.  And I am retreating to be quietly thankful in a quiet healing place. Hiding from watery mayhem as I tend to do. Offline.

I will be back in a few days, but for now I am stepping away from the intensity of the past weeks.


Wishing all a refreshing Water Festival if you celebrate, and New Year of hope, health and happiness.

When I return to the online world, I plan to share some thoughts around my third word of 2015. Realise…. If I am brave, I will have some news to share.

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!

kanchanaburi 1

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.

kanchanaburi 16

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


kanchanaburi 2

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

kanchanaburi 9


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!


kanchanaburi 6

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


kanchanaburi 12


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


You know that sense of mounting excitement as the most important Festival of the year approaches – such as Christmas when I still lived in the UK, or Dassain in Nepal?  The sense of anticipation intensifies, shops get busier, preparations are increasingly visible and conversations are more and more dominated by plans and tasks for the coming festivities.

In this part of the world, many countries are celebrating Water Festivals and New Year.  As the weather becomes more hot and oppressive, the temperatures continue to rise and the air becomes heavy with the moisture of dreamed-for rains  and the exhaustion and tetchiness which the season nurtures.  The trees start to display their spectacular colours, with the purple jacaranda and bright yellow laburnum flowers already signalling the approaching change in seasons.

Jacaranda in the morning sunlight

Jacaranda in the morning sunlight

In Myanmar we celebrate Thingyan, the Water Festival from today, with four days of watery mayhem followed by the Myanmar New Year.

I love the air of anticipation as Thingyan approaches.  Everyone is challenging the unbearable heat and making their plans for the festival time.  Friends and colleagues have a spark in their eyes, as they pack up and head to their home communities or prepare for the festivities in Yangon.  This year in particular, there has been a proliferation of plastic blossom of the Padauk tree, which is the traditional symbol of Thingyan.  Little pots have been on sale at the traffic lights, sprigs adorning walls, windows and doors, all cars have a spray or two on the dashboard and even the shopping centre and airport have impressive displays!

Padauk displays abound

Padauk displays abound

A flowering of the Padauk on Tuesday sparked great excitement and I was gifted some sprigs on the way to work by a woman who runs a little, wooden betel stall at the end of my lane. 

Tuesday's fresh padauk blossom

Tuesday’s fresh padauk blossom


thingyan 2

The streets are filled with vans and trucks, packed with speakers blaring out raucous music and and youngsters dancing happily.  The length of the main roads beside the Lakes are a scene of frantic activity as pandals or stages are being erected against the clock , workmen hammering the wooden planks together and smart young folks hand out flyers for their pandal, advertising best packages of music, entertainment, refreshments and most of all – the number of hoses and powerful water cannons (firehoses with enormous force!)

Thingyan advertising

Thingyan advertising




Building the pandals

Building the pandals




As we packed up on Friday to leave for the Thingyan break, we were all doused, albeit gently, with sprigs of leaves and sandalwood water just to make sure we received Thingyan auspicious blessings, while other colleagues either sprinkled us with water from water bottles of were waiting outside with waterguns.  No one went home dry, nor was anyone drenched.  Unlike the days of the festival itself when you cannot avoid being soaked to the skin if you set foot out in the street!

Pre-Thingyan Sunset

Pre-Thingyan Sunset

Thingyan is a wonderful time of celebration and release and a very special experience.  However, this year I decided to slip out of the country on the eve of Thingyan, to find a space of tranquility and rest, and relative dryness while the festivities are at their peak!

A very happy Thingyan Water Festival to you all!

Starfish, scars and soakings

We are splat bang in the midst of Water Festival Mania in this part of the world.  In Thailand Songkran is celebrated, with massive waterguns, tubs of water and young children with little bowls of water – all aiming to soak you!

In Myanmar, the Thingyan celebrations last at least four days and ensure a total drenching, with the aim of cleansing the sins of the previous year.

It is all great fun, but it does get a bit wearing after a few hours of not being able to venture outdoors without being absolutely drenched through and through.  So I toyed with the idea of heading out of Bangkok, to a jungle retreat perhaps, or to the beach?  The beach certainly appealed as did the allure of starfish hunting in the ocean.  However, I found it rather difficult to make a solid plan.  Getting out of Bangkok is not difficult, but does require at least knowing where you are intending to head.  I did not particularly feel like taking a flight somewhere, and howfing my bags on and off of buses with a fairly fresh surgical would did not appeal much either.  A train journey would do the trick, though again I would to be clear about where I was heading and have accommodation sorted.  I also had an appointment with Dr P a week after the surgery so would need to be in town until then.  And although the wound was healing well, let’s face it, it is still a laceration and was very tender.  I was not convinced that it would be entirely wise to dunk it in the ocean and pursue random starfish!

I saw Dr P on Wednesday, and he was very pleased with the healing.  But the surrounding skin was pretty inflamed and angry.  Happily he felt that the dressing was no longer needed and after a brief consultation I was sent off into the great outdoors to get on with healing.

With a few days before my return to Yangon, I made a few enquiries, and looked at a few options but many places were fully booked as folks head out of town for the holiday.  And then one friend advised me that travelling out of Bangkok would probably be pretty stressful.  Transportation is pretty booked out and the main destinations would be very busy.  So I decided to settle on staying in Bangkok and lying low for Songkran, and take up residence beside the lovely little pool at our apartment.

As it turned out, that was clearly the best decision because I returned back to the apartment to a number of messages and the news of two massive earthquakes off Aceh and a tsunami alert.  It was good to be in contact immediately with family after our 2004 experience.  And I have no words for the relief and gratitude that a major tsunami was not triggered.

So no starfish hunting this time, although I did visit Ocean World which does have a starfish department.  That will “tide” me over for a while