What are you looking forward to in 2015?!

I tend to be pretty sceptical about New Year “good” resolutions, you know, stuff that we say we do, and know we won’t. And hell, there’s enough of the “annual objectives” that Boss will announce at the morning meeting on the 5th…this blog is about the good stuff, so here are the top #5 things I’m looking forward to in 2015: namely travels, sporty challenges, baking and knitting home time, soaking up London’s cultural scene and last but not least, making time to attend dear one’s life events, weddings, births, birthdays and anniversaries…

What are you looking forward to in 2015?

1. Discovering two new countries per year (at least) is my aim…2014 most notable ones were an amazing wedding in Tokyo, Japan and an inspiring trip to Myanmar. 2015 will start with a romantic wedding in Guatemala…and let’s see where the wind takes us next but it could be a pretty frosted trip (hint!)…

scratch map

Note to self: best photo apps discovered this year were Pro HDR to replicate long exposure shot with a phone camera, and Hyperlapse, the fun, fast forward, lapse-like video app. 

2. Carry on running Europe…2014 was an honest running year, with a very scenic Venice marathon. My heart is more or less set on Vienna for 2015, and I’m hoping for (well errrr soon starting training for) a better time, maybe even a PB!

Note to self: remember to sign up for The Marathon du Medoc in February…looks like so much fun

3. Enjoying London. It’s all well to travel and be out and about all the time, but I feel like I should be spending more time at home. And hell there’s so much going on!!

BB Bakery RouteMap

In 2014 I became a proud V&A member and an Art Fund member so I have quite a few cultural items on the agenda, in particular but not only:

– Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne at the Royal Academy of Arts (Jan 15)

Alexander Mc Queen: Savage beauty at the V&A (March 15) – Ok I almost got my V&A membership for this one. I’m not going to hide it, I’m excited. Plus is coincides with the London Fashion weekend

Inventing impressionism at the National Gallery (May 15)

Audrey Hepburn: portrait of an icon at the National Portrait Gallery

The world goes pop at the Tate Modern (Sept 15). They had a pop culture oriented one last year at the Barbican last year, but this looks interesting too

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts (Sept 15)

Note to self: beloved 40 winks people are organising talks in 2015 – must absolutely go

3. I was reading this article the other day, about how easy to embed a little fitness in your everyday life; while for someone who’s already quite fit, the marginal cost of getting fitter gets higher and higher.

Fair point, but I disagree with the way thtey go about it: there should be no need for boot camps and other weight loss gimmicks. It’s being active and having fun that really matters for me.

So for 2015, more activities, but above all more fun please!! A few months ago we started practising acro-rock and roll with Steve and it’s the best use of my Monday night – ever. It’s tough but real fun, cardio, fitness, couple bonding (and some awkwardness) it’s all there.

Note to self: try and go to Pole Dancing more regularly

4. Enjoy home, time together, friends, laughs with loved one. My gran taught me how to knit this Christmas and I can totally see this becoming my winter-warmer (keeps your knees toasty)

Note to self: travel like a Wooly Gangsta

knitting for christmas....

So I wish for 2015 to bring its lot of friendly dinners, weekends with my family and lovely time. In that respect, Christmas was the best reset break to start to 2015 on the right note!! Plus, on the planner we have 6 weddings to attend to in 4 different countries, a couple of big birthday parties, of which, my gran’s 90’s, and a big gathering 10yr anniversary, it’s going to be big (!!) ….

Note to self: hire dresses, since Christiana posted this review, it got me intrigued

Bring it on 2015, I’m ready!!

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[Travelling in my kitchen] to…Alsatian Christmas markets, lots of mulled wine and a “pain d’épices” recipe

kaysersberg village alsace christmas market

We came back from Myanmar 2 weeks ago and stepping into a full blow Christmassy London right back from the beach slightly startled me! It’s only this weekend when we travelled to Alsace, the French border region with Germany, that the true Christmas spirit hit us. I came back home with lots of baking ideas, and in particular I was keen to improve my “pain d’épice” recipe. (scroll down for the ultimate recipe)

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The Riquewihr Christmas market, kids (and adults’) paradise!

Alsace is a culturaly quite peculiar French region. First, it benefits from a central European position and Strasbourg, its capital, currently host the European parliament. But also because during centuries of history, Alsace has bounced back between several national allegiances; most recently in the 20th century, Alsace moved from French to German and back again a couple of times between the 3 main pan European wars. As a result maybe, the local culture is very strong, with French, German, Austrian, Swiss influences (but not only), that can be witnessed today in the architecture, literature, and the cuisine of course!

The Christmas markets (“Christkindelsmärik”) are traditional in the region and if big cities like Strasbourg offer large markets, we were expertly guided toward smaller but super cute villages. In particular, village of Riquewihr, nested in the vineyards, hosts a seasonal market where we sampled (very) large quantities of regional food in random order until we could not walk anymore. Ohhh you need to try some choucroute! oh and my dear you can’t leave without trying this kouglof, surely.. how about that Munster super smelly cheese? a piece of Flàmmeküeche maybe? oh and the smell of roasted chesnuts

The “pain d’épice” is a cake that was introduced in Eastern France in 1596 according to the legend but I personally doubt that spices like cinnamon, ginger or vanilla could have been available at that time so I guess it was more like a strongly honey flavoured cake.

Last year I used Anne-Sophie’s recipe from her amazing Fashion Cooking blog, which was really good. But with all that extensive tasting this weekend, and talking to local producers, I wanted to step up the game, revisit my proportions, add candied orange peel and maybe ginger too.

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Hot mulled wine with Mirabelle liquor…mmm and I didn’t feel cold anymore!!
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The little village of Riquewihr, nested in the vineyards (notoriously producing top quality Riesling wine), features a truly beautiful market with lots of regional products

One obvious but important note is that up to 40% of the pain d’épice is made of honey, depending on the baker and the recipe. The quality of the input is crucial as it’s what gives most of the taste. So off I was to A.Gold, my favourite honey provider in London. Especially because those guys sell the postcode urban honey which is not only delicious but also helps our city’s green life. One day I’ll have my own hive I promise, but this will be for another post 😉

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* Ingredients:

The base of any of those cakes should be made of flour (about 40-45%), a mix of honey and sugar (same, 40-45%) and the rest made of the “liquids” (milk or water and eggs). Butter is optional but adds softness. And then the complements, nuts, candied oranges, spices etc.

– 175gr honey (choose one with a strong taste you like)
– 250gr flour: mixed 50/50 white flour and wholemeal or rye
– 25gr full fat milk
– 2 eggs
– 50gr butter
– 75gr brown sugar
– 10gr baker’s yeast + 1 ts baking powder
– spices: 2 ts of cinnamon, 1 star anise, 1 ts ginger, a few cloves, cardamom, grated nutmeg, a vanilla pod (or vanilla extract)
– a grated orange peel
– 75gr candied orange / lemon peels and / or candied ginger
– pearl sugar for topping

 * Instructions

Heat gently the milk, sugar, butter and spices, cast aside for a while. The longer it will infuse the stronger the spice taste will be (30min minimum recommended). Add the honey and stir on the hob at minimum heat (we’re not making caramel here!).  Take off the star anis, cloves, cardamon seeds and vanilla pod if needed. Make sure it’s not too hot and stir the yeast in.

Pre-heat the oven at 180.

In a large pot, add the flour in a little well shape and pour the liquid and start mixing in. Incorporate the dried fruits and the eggs and mix well again.

Pour in a cake tin and sprinkle with pearl sugar.  Bake for 1h at 175 degrees.

I wanted to complement my Christmas hampers so had to use individual paper cups (I recycled the individual panettone ones that I had never used). On the market a baker recommended to serve it slightly warm, with a scoop of home-made vanilla ice-cream….got us mouthwatering.

Note that for individual tins I had to reduce the cooking time to 40min.

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Next year I will try to steal my friend’s Kouglof / Gugelhupf recipe and try this little beauty at home. It’s a sort of fruity brioche baked in a hollow ceramic mould…yuummm

kaysersberg village alsace christmas market

The surreal archaeological site of Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)

A shepherd through the ruins
A shepherd through the ruins
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Woman praying in Dhammayanggyi temple

According to the UNESCO, Bagan is the capital city of the first Myanma Kingdom, the site measures 13 by 8 km and contains over 2,500 mostly Buddhist monuments (temples, stupas, monasteries, etc) built from the 10th to the 14th centuries AD. Several of these monuments are still highly venerated by the population, and attract numerous pilgrims and devotees from all over the country, particularly at festival times and on Saturdays. It was fun to see mini-buses full of Myanmar people, wearing tour-operator hats actually, but at times quite busy!

The UNESCO never gave the site the status of “World heritage” but regularly helps the restoration, in particular of mural paintings as they constitute a unique corpus of paintings of that time in southeast Asia and have been the most reliable source for the history of the Kingdom.

And it does feel like a sacred and privileged place. Especially at sunset where it turns to a truly magical spectacle, as dusk casts a golden spell on the brick ruins, highlighting the shadows of the countless temples…

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Sunset rays lighting the buddhas…

Bagan can be reached easily from the Nyaung U Airport in 10min. We stayed at the Blue Bird, a recent boutique hotel in New Bagan, which was a real treat, modern and with a walk-in shower that I soooo wanted to take home. Well, the fact is that showering had become quite an obsession after long days spent mostly barefoot in temples or wandering in the dust in flip flops!

Renting bikes or electric bikes makes all the difference at the site is quite vast, once again I was glad to have a flash light, as it gets completely dark about 20min after sunset. Despite that, we ditched the idea of getting a driver (useless) and spent 3 days loosing ourselves in a maze of temples and soaking the atmosphere, where I was pretending to be a repentant Queen about to build my own pagoda.

Indeed, the alleged 2,500 temples carry much legends and folklore. I loved the Dhammayangyi Temple, that was built by  King Narathu to repent for murdering his father, brother and a wife (charming compensation!). The legend is that Narathu’s wickedness was so perpetual that he chopped off the hands of temple masons for faulty workmanship. ahh!!! I’ll tell that to the builders next time…

Dhammayangyi temple
Dhammayangyi temple

My Christmas present was a balloon ride over the site and I enjoyed every minute of the unique bird-eye view. Getting up at 4am was well worth it, those guys didn’t make it to the Lonely Planet cover for no reason! Even without going on a balloon, getting up before sunrise is strongly recommended, the haze dissipating and temples bathed in an early morning light make for a great spectacle.

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Sunrise over the archaeological site, a magical sight…

And finally we spared a morning to pay our respect on the Mount Popa. I think the Lonely Planet had a great recommendation: going without a guide is a little bit like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. We couldn’t find one unfortunately, so we started by reading a few stories that I found on different blogs and website, and ended up chatting people and creating legends of our own…there’s a certain story about losing a ring on the way out and finding it several hours, plus all the stones, one by one, on the road. If that was not a miracle, I’m not sure what else it was!?

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The sacred Mount Popa
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The 777 stairs climb to Mont Popa is a little adventure, in a lush background, surrounded with cheeky monkeys and other nats and spirits

Related posts:

Mingalabar to Myanmar, generic recommendations to read when preparing the trip

3 days trek from Kalaw to the Inle Lake, photos

Mingalabar, “a warm welcome to Myanmar”

map asia myanmar inley lake An absolutely wonderful country, we had a fantastic time discovering a diverse and rich culture. Myanmar is attractive in many aspects and tourism is starting to develop. I felt like before posting photos and also to avoid novel-long posts, I should maybe start with a little introduction.

One thing is sure, you will be welcome, the government has actually sprinkled large signs displaying a “warmly welcome and take care of tourists” message all across the country. But Myanmar is not Thailand, if it’s amazing resort, beaches and nightlife that you are after, the quality for money may be better in the neighbouring country. For us at least, it was a cultural, quite active trip where we mostly rose up early and went to bed a couple of hours after sunset. Depending on your city / country balance it may change but even on the beach side, night life is down to a chilled cocktail and a good book.

Some of our friends organised their trip with a specialised travel agency that booked plane tickets, hotel and visas for them, it’s an option that I decided to skip. One because most of local travel agencies belong to the government, as well as airlines though, but also because planning is half the fun and I thoroughly enjoyed reading books, blogs, articles, asking expats and friends about their experiences.

Here are the bits and pieces of fact-finding and recommendations I collected, hope it can be useful.

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Warmly welcome and Take care of Tourists

How to travel responsibly?

“We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral – everything.”  U Win Tin , NLD leader, 2010

In a country that was opened to tourism only a couple of years ago, and where democracy is still a challenge, it’s a tough question to tourists. It’s almost impossible to know if and how to choose and agency, which hotel to book, and if to buy jade earrings or not. I am no expert and I probably did some things wrong, but that doesn’t mean there is no point trying. On top of that, it is difficult to turn a blind eye to sustainability issues: how to accommodate thousands of foreigners flocking a country that has (extremely) limited rubbish collection system, dubious water sewage etc…how to find a hotel that doesn’t recycle the chlore’d water from their swimming pool directly into the Inle lake?

When to go?

It is generally held that in Burma we do not have four seasons, we have only three, the hot season, the rainy season and the cold season. Spring is largely unknown although in the cooler border regions there is a stretch of pleasant, spring-like weather that we refer to as summer. (Letters from Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi)

A friend of us could only take time off work in August and still says that it was well worth the trip, adding a few light weight waterproof layers and heavier footwear. From what the locals told us, it seems that the rain season isn’t as heavy as in, say India for example, and especially in the north. Yet some attractions such as ballooning may not be available.
Proper summer starts in January until March and the touristy season starts before that. November was a great choice, not overly hot yet, the nature was really lush while we enjoyed a clear blue sky everywhere we went.

Administrative & other concerns

Visa: the embassy now offers an online service for $50 where one has to send their passport and gets their visas back by the post. I didn’t like the idea of mailing my passport and made a quick trip to the embassy, chit chatted with other travellers in the waiting room for 25min where we exchanged useful travelling info and only paid £14. It’s takes about a week to get the visa and they will keep your passport for that time. In theory you will need to have your flight booked already when requesting for a visa, but mine weren’t and I just left it blank…worked either way.

Money: I have seen a couple of ATMs, one of which at the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon actually, but by far the easiest is to bring brand new $100 notes with you and change them at the Yangon airport (we tried a few others downtown but this is where we got the best rate). Most change agents will only take crisp new notes and you will get a better change rate with $100 notes.
How much do you need? We have been counting at large to make sure we wouldn’t end up blocked, roughly airport transfers are the equivalent of $5 to 10, even treating ourselves we ate really well for less (sometimes way less) than $50 a day for 2 including a couple of local beers. I had pre-booked some of the hotels before leaving, you can get a good idea of how much you should budget for hotel spending using the Lonely Planet as a guide, and same for the main activities (hot air balloon needs to be pre-booked and paid online, things like trekking can go up to $50 a day for 2, renting bikes is normally only a couple of $. And we spent really little more than that, a few souvenirs, bike rentals (no more than a couple of $ if not free in some hotels), horse carts ride in Bagan ($7) or the odd boat rental in Inle ($15-20), and a few taxis especially in cities like Yangon or Mandalay.

Packing essentials

* I opted for a 55L front opening zipper bagpack with a 10L extension that proved a great companion. I followed other bloggers recommendations and loaded it with around 12kg, and left space for souvenirs and other little Christmas presents.
Also having a rucksack fitting in the overhead locker was hugely helpful for the local flights. Never mind the liquid limitations, there just isn’t any.
We have been recommended the packing cubes method as well for the ones who take a longer break especially, and I still am in love with the vacuum bag method.

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The reason why we kept our luggage in the cabin…
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flights or buses?

* A large scarf, mine is a very large silk scarf. Silk is magic, keeps warm in the cold but is breathing in the heat. Take it long enough that is can turn to a skirt / cover your legs.
* A pair of flip flops is absolutely necessary to visit temples (and there are many, many of them), some light shoes (trainers, sandals) and a pair of heavier duty trainers or walking shoes especially if you want to trek but I will come back to this later (see Kalaw to Inle).
* A couple of jumpers, the forecast may tell you it’s 33 degrees in Yangon, but the planes and buses are freezing, and nights get chilli.
* And one for girls, try and keep the hemline relatively low, light trousers may be more useful than shorts, comfortable and modest wear will be the choice. Most locals wear a longy, a sort of ankle long skirt that is held by a knot at the wait, in colourful fabrics for women and brick or bottle green checks patterns for men. We found it easier to adopt for women clearly 🙂
* A little torch lamp. I was a bit sceptical about that one but listen to friends recommendations and appreciated it. Most roads don’t have any lighting and for those who want to go trekking it will prove even more important.
* And the usual basic essentials: mosquito repellent and calming spray, sun cream, wet wipes, dry wash, a basic emergency kit (plasters, disinfectant, etc)…

Before leaving …to read and watch

Myanmar is a country with a complex history, and I feel like going without any research would be a real waste.

Once there I also felt my knowledge about Buddhism was not good enough to appreciate and fully grasp the importance of some temple and traditions and bought the “Buddhism, A very short introduction” by Damien Keown. And by the way, if anyone has better recommendations, please share!

The glass palace – Amitav Ghosh
Starting in the 19th century in Mandalay, with the intertwined stories of the royal family send to exile in India and the one of Rajkumar, an Indian boy emigrated to Burma, it is a great way to understand history with an entertaining story.

Under the dragon – Rory Maclean
A BBC British journalist who travelled to Burma, in the early 90’s.
He goes around the country to seek a bamboo basket seen in a photo taken by a fellow traveler in the late 19th century and stored in the British museum archives. Many encounters with peculiar characters will result in an interesting collection of stories, each describing aspect of the country.

Letters from Burma and Freedom from fear – Aung San Suu Kyi

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The lady – Luc Besson
Filmed before Aung San Suu Kyi was released from imprisonment, the story is based on family, friends, colleagues, and international associations’ testimonials.

Un indovino mi disse – Tiziano Terzani (translated to English to A Fortune Teller Told Me)
The true story of a (superstitioous) Italian journalist who was told by a fortune teller that a great mortal danger would come “from the sky” in 1993. He took it seriously and subsequently carried on his travelling accross South East Asia solely using ground transportation that year…

Burmese Days – George Orwell

Chroniques Birmanes (translated to Burmese Chronicles) -Guy Delisle
comic book, in French, writen by Canadian Guy Delisle, father of a young boy and whose wife is an MSF doctor (Medecins Sans Frontiere) and therefore has a light and fun insight on a few countries like Myanmar. A refreshing, yet well informed view.

They call it Myanmar…lifting the curtain – Robert H. Lieberman

“I tried to make a movie that was not political,” said Mr. Lieberman, “but of course, that was impossible in the end.” Shot clandestinely over a 2-year period, this documentary provides a rare look at the second-most isolated country on the planet. It lifts the curtain to expose the everyday life in a country that has been held in the iron grip of a brutal military regime for 48 years.

or also try The Guardian selection

Sample Itineraries

** 7 days example (done by an agency): a super-packed itinerary, quite high-end

Day #1: arrive in Yangon. Kandawgyi Palace Hotel for check-in and overnight.

Day #2: transfer to Bagan and see the main temples. Overnight at Tharabar Gate Hotel.

Day #3: drive to Nyaung Oo.

Day #4: Morning flight to Mandalay, the city of the last Myanmar Kings. Upon arrival drive to Amarapura the “City of Immortals” and visit the 150 year old Mahagandayon monastery, and famous Buddhist learning centre.

Day #5: Morning flight to Heho in Shan State to see the Inle Lake. Overnight at Myanmar Treasure Inle Resort.

Day #6 and #7: transfer to Thandwe to spend the weekend on Ngapali beach. Overnight at the Sandoway

**11 days itinerary (also done by an agency) in the rainy season, August

Day #1 and #2: Arrival Yangon. Overnight at the Kandawgyi palace hotel

Day #3 and #4: transfer to Bagan  and sightseeing. Overnight at the Thiripyit Saya Sanctuary resort

Day #5: Bagan – visit Mount Popa

Day #6: transfer to Heho by flight and visit Pindaya cave

Day #7: Nyaung shwe and boat excursion in Inle Lake. Overnight at the May Guest House

Day #8: Inle lake – Inn Thein market boat excursion

Day #9: Heho  to Mandalay by flight and visit Sagaing – Ava- Amarapura. Overnight at the Mandalay Hill resort

Day #10: Mandalay – Mingun by boat and Mandalay city tour.

Day #11: Mandalay – Visit Pyin Oo Lwin

** Other interesting:

trekking around the Inle Lake, starting from Kalaw
– take a cruise from Mandalay to Bagan along the Ayeyarwady river
– with more time, go and explore the Myeik Islands

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Trekking from Kalaw to the Inle Lake… click on the image to access the article

A memorable trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)

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Tea leaves pickers in the mountains
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Women working in rice fields
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hot chillies left to dry in the sun

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From the very start when I started preparing the trip and seeing Charlotte’s and other friends photos, I knew I was quite curious about going trekking, meeting people outside of the beaten path. And I am immensely glad we did it as it was a major highlight of our 2 weeks trip in the country.

It is an, albeit touristy, it remains an authentic experience. It’s not that hundreds of travellers suddenly decided to go all trekking on the same path but rather that it’s the only route where the government doesn’t have any (lengthy) pre-authorisations process. We started from Kalaw where our guide John Sylvester, got us to fill a simple form with our names and passport numbers that he then dropped at the police stations, a 5min business. In comparison, fellow travellers who wanted to explore the southern region, border of Thailand, had to wait for over 2 weeks, ask for local help, and a pinch of luck to get their permits to go exploring the band of shore land on a bike. Amazing adventure that I hope they will relate soon on their blog 😉

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Young monk on his way to school

I have to make one big acknowledgement there, John totally made the trip worth it. He started as a young boy as a porter in the family business and learnt English by having tourists in his environment from then. Passionate about his region, trekking and the world in general, John has been running his own trek company for 15 years and knows his job well. He also speaks a very good English which makes the whole difference between seeing the region and experiencing it. I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent in villages, sharing freshly cut tea and discussing about the recent changes in the country.

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We started in the afternoon and spent the night with the Nepalese family who runs the little shelter at the view point, after having enjoyed a magnificent sunset. And finally, shared the evening activities with them, steaming the fresh tea leaves and preparing the dinner mostly.

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Steaming the tea leaves at the end of the day gives them the characteristic smoked flavour we find in Myanmar tea. Half of it will go to the village which manages the land

The next day was longer, we probably covered about 35/40km, stopping in different villages and …sharing more tea. The tribes we met with are organised in different ways, have different traditions. And as we advanced, the landscape also changed much. From tea leaves, to tobacco fields, rice terraces quite labour intensive and helped by ox carts, gingers and chilly fields, sesame, Our little company was pretty tired and didn’t last much after night fall. Some houses will have a little solar panel but must don’t have electricity at all and “pitch black” takes a whole new dimension. How shinny the stars are in the middle of the mountains…

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On a house-keeping note, for those interested by the trek, it’s a good idea to carry the following:
– A 20L day pack
– Comfortable walking shoes, we went at a sustained pace (about 35km a day) and I’m sure that John is more than happy to take it a little slower but in any case, sports shoes are a good idea
– A little torch lamp
– Light sleeping bags – most families will provide you with blankets but I felt more comfortable having my own
– Sun cream and mosquito spray
– A good jumper for the evening and the early morning
– A camelback type of water supply or a water bottle
– Leggings or cropped pants instead of shorts, especially for girls. I started in shorts and quickly changed into running trousers with a longer hem line.
– Wet wipes / hands dry wash and a small Eco toilet paper roll (and their little zip bag to bring the rubbish back with you)

And our full itinerary and packing list can be found here

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Thanks John!!!