Trams, Tulips and Temples

Tulips under cherry blossoms in Nagasaki attest to the Dutch trading influence of the Dutch East India Company.

Today, modern, energetic and one of Japan’s most important port cities boasting echoes of it’s foreign trade past, Nagasaki holds a fascinating role in Japan’s history, particularly the part it played in foreign trade during the country’s ‘period of isolation’ in the 17th century.


We visit a 1620’s built temple – Kofukuji is 5 minutes from Kokaido-Mae streetcar stop, and its timeless beauty makes it worth a visit.








They may be trams to me but to locals they are streetcars. Frequent, busy and efficient, a flat fee of of 120 yen per trip irrespective of distance simplifies the whole operation.




And, so it is ‘sayonara’ Nakasaki as we board our launch and set off into the rising sun and more of this incredible country.



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M2MvM – the last of Burma … Rangoon (now Yangon)

Whoever said all good things must come to an end is probably correct, but I wish right now he wasn’t. I don’t want to leave Burma, and hope to return to this wonderful country.

From Heho and the fabulous Inle Lake, we fly to Yangon, founded in 1755, renamed Rangoon when the British annexed the country in 1885. Tree lined avenues, lakes and parks and a bustling city centre. A wealth of Victorian architecture, including the famous Strand Hotel, sister hotel to Singapore’s Raffles.

And traffic.20160316_103728_HDR

We visit the must-see Shwedagon Pagoda 2,500 years old, on Singuttara Hill, the most sacred Buddhist site in Burma and one of the wonders of the religious world. Complex geometry and many structures, up to 110m high, the lower stupa claims 8,688 solid gold bars, with another 13,153 in the upper part. The tip of the stupa claims 5,448 diamonds, 2,317 rubies, many sapphires and other gems, 1,065 golden bells and at the very top a single 76 carat diamond. It’s like Burma kept the best pagoda for the last.  For us, at any rate.


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Looks like a job for Ocean’s 11!




We have lunch on Inya Lake, within 200 metres of Aug San Suu Kyi’s house where she spent 15 years under house arrest.

All too soon, it’s goodbye to fabulous Burma/Myanmar as we fly to Singapore and then home to our own Mandalay.


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M2MvM – Burma even more beautiful! Inle Lake

20160314_075737_HDRA short flight from Bagan puts us into Heho and we transfer to the fabulous Aureum Palace Hotel. This is a stand-out accommodation resort on the shore of Lake Inle. In the restaurant one young waiter learned that my name is John, and he became so excited, calling me “Johnny” because he was Johnny, too. He epitomized the friendliness of the people of Burma. The Aureum Palace would be my favourite Burma resort; if you go to Myanmar, you must stay there.


We spend a couple of days on the huge lake (116 km2) in high speed long-tails, visiting villages around the shore, marvelling at the floating gardens. These gardens are staked to the lake bottom, replenished continually by boat loads of vegetable matter hauled on those small boats then stacked on top of the garden beds when the previous crop is harvested. Inle provides the bulk of Burma’s tomatoes and many vegetable crops. Reminiscent of the floating island dwellers on Lake Titicaca.




Some 70,000 people live in these water villages. One small group still follow the ancient practice of rings (actually a long spiral) around the neck and legs of the women. We’re told that it’s not a beauty thing. It’s actually intended to make the women seem ugly to invading marauders. The practice h20160314_103943_HDRas nearly died out. Fascinating.

The fishermen on their long-tail canoes use “leg paddling” to manoeuvre their canoes. The long paddle is held against the body, one leg wrapped around it propels the boat, leaving both arms free to handle their conical fish traps and other gear. Against the setting sun, they look like so many ballet dancers performing an elegant and ancient ritual. I hope this fishing system never dies out.

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The lake is surprisingly shallow. Much of it is about 2m deep in the dry season, and crystal clear. Dense growth on the lake floor, in places reaching to the surface, provides a home for a large fish population, predominantly a species of carp. Boats zip around on it all day dragging rooster tails, people travelling, harvesting lake weed, fishing – a multitude of pursuits all based on this massive water resource.


Villages around the lake provide homes for craftsmen of all types. We watch silk weaving on handlooms, visit the ringed neck women, have lunch in a restaurant on stilts, see beaten silver ornaments. Surprise, surprise, we acquire a couple of paintings. They’re now on our kitchen wall, a constant reminder of a wonderful month in our lives.

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At the end of another wonderful day we return to our rooms – yes, plural; our unit is probably as large as our own house – hoping that somehow we could stay here for a much longer. But as the man said, tempus fugit, and so must we, tomorrow, to Yangon our departure city.

Book, you say? What book? It’ll have to wait.

John Bell Books

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M2MvM – Beautiful Burma! Bagan


How many times am I going to say that?           WOW!


Bagan, on the banks of the majestic Irrawaddy, dates back to 849 A.D. The former capital of the first Burma empire, embracing some 42 km2. There are literally thousands – someone said 4,000 – of ancient pagodas, stupas, shrines, ordination halls and monuments.

sunset dancers Irrawaddy River

sunset dancers Irrawaddy River

More gold leaf than I could imagine. Is it real? We’re assured that it is. I wonder how it survived the years of Japanese invasion, then political instability and struggles.

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I manage to lose another pair of thongs at the Ananda Temple, a whitewashed masterpiece of Mon architecture, with four standing Buddhas. Fabulous. It deserves another “wow” but I can’t keep saying that.

With my brand new longyi  (Burma laplap) – I think mine was designed to fit a Sumo wrestler – wrapped over a pair of shorts, and bare feet, the locals have reason to stare in bemusement. No pics of me so rigged will be permitted in this blog!

I can’t help but ponder how it is that Australians dress to local custom when travelling, yet some immigrants to Australia refuse to do so in our country. Maybe our politicians need to embrace Swiss immigration legislation, where one of the precursors to citizenship is proof of assimilation into Swiss culture. In all its forms. No assimilation, no citizenship. Simple. Sounds reasonable to me.

By late afternoon we’re pretty much pagoda’d out. At one collection of temple buildings about 2000 years old, and now crumbling, in disrepair, being overtaking by trees and vines, we meet a bunch of young girls selling beautifully colored material, and Carol can’t resist.


Up early next morning for one of the trip highlights, a dawn flight with Oriental Ballooning Myanmar. Stunning. Several companies operating multiple balloons create a visual feast drifting silently above several thousand pagodas. Breathtaking.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

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I’ve about given up on progressing my next book while in Burma. Too much to see and do, feel and experience. Hopefully all of this wonder will recharge my author batteries for when we get back to ‘our’ Mandalay.

John Bell Books

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M2MvM – Burma! Afloat on the Irrawaddy

20160310_090521_HDROur riverboat, the Irrawaddy Princess 2, is waiting for us at the Saigaing Jetty.
20160310_091230_HDR.jpgIncredibly, in that crowded over-used waterway, right where we boarded, these fishermen caught several fish around 500mm long! You can see one in that net.

20160310_093033_HDRLady Lucky must’ve been looking out for us as we are very fortunate to score one of the two forward cabins, which is surprisingly comfortable. Our view includes the ship’s bell, right outside our forward window!

The river is already a hive of activity, boats going in all directions. We head off downstream, pass under a triple-coathanger bridge. Mini Sydney Harbour stuff.20160310_092051_HDR

The wide river, shallow at this dry period, carries an enormous amount of boat traffic. All shapes and sizes, all going somewhere. Occasionally we see boats aground, so easy to veer away from the twisting channels of deeper water. How the skipper finds his way is beyond me. These channels must be continually changing.


We trundle along downstream at a steady 5 knots, slowing frequently to navigate a channel. A full day heading towards Bagan.

20160311_071430_HDR.jpg20160311_091329_HDR.jpgAs the sun sinks, we pull into a back eddy along the bank and anchor for the night. While we sleep, life on the river goes on. Many boats have stopped for the night, but some keep moving. Must be very shallow draught vessels.

Daylight and the engines rumble into life.

During the morning, we pull over to the riverbank and tie up.

A steep sandy climb brings us to age-old serenity and a brush with history in Yandabo, a village of potters, where in1826 Britain and Burma signed The Yandabo Treaty to end the first Anglo-Burmese war. The treaty ceded significant territories to the

The treaty ceded significant territories to the British, and required the King to pay war reparations to the British of one million pounds.  Sound a bit one-way, that treaty?20160310_163315_HDR.jpg

Over 60 families engage in pottery, their products exported widely. We watch the process, from river mud dug out of the steep banks, to finished pot ready for firing.

Carol sits in the working seat and pedals to keep the wheel spinning. Takes a while, but she finally gets the right rhythm. Rewarded with a big grin from the girl whose place she’d taken.

Back aboard our slow boat to Bagan. Eventually we pull in and disembark via a rickety jetty at our destination, a town established in 849 A.D.

John Bell Books

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M2MvM – Burma! Hsipaw and Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin)

20160306_095628We walk through timeless villages where Shan people farm using techniques and tools that haven’t changed in hundreds of years.20160307_162147_HDR

And we ride in the local taxis, lovingly decorated carriages dra20160307_162000_HDR.jpgwn by horses – great way to travel.

Our Hsipaw day closes with sunset drinks in a longtail on the Irrawaddy River.


The learning curve extends – I take my first selfie; a bit one-eyed about it.20160305_171825.jpg

From Hsipaw we board a train. This is some train. And they’re some tracks!


Narrow gauge, ancient, it shakes, rattles and rolls alarmingly on rails that must’ve been laid a long time ago. Our bags threaten to roll out the open door, so we stack them tighter.

20160306_131402.jpgWatching the carriage behind us through the open connecting doors exaggerates the roll. The scenery drags our attention away from our potential life expectancy.

You’ve heard of the slow boat to China – well this is the slow train to Maymyo. But it winds through magnificent scenery, dense forests and then down into a huge ravine. We see the Gokteik viaduct, built in 1901. Spindly.


Hope it’s stronger than it looks, the second longest viaduct in the world at the time. The aging structure creaks as the train edges its way across. A long way down… 320 feet.

Despite misgivings, we arrive in Maymyo, a classic British station town, elevated and cool to escape the lowland heat of Mandalay. Redolent of the British Empire, complete with haunted mansions, stagecoach taxis, Baptist and Anglican churches.


You must visit the National Gardens of Kandawgyi, 435 acres of lovingly maintained grounds and pagodas. I leave Carol sketching beside the lake while I go walkabout. Orchids galore, butterflies, deer, tropical gardens and lawns.


Watching Carol for a moment, I realize I too should be creating – i.e. putting more words into the manuscript for Book 4 of the Williams Series. But there’s too much out here to do and to see.  Maybe tomorrow… and then again, maybe not!

John Bell Books 

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M2MvM – Border Crossing … China/Burma

Image result for old burma road

Dali lies on the fabled ‘Old Burma Road’ (Chinese: 滇缅公路)  (South Silk Road) and we drive along this ancient route, crossing the Mekong headwaters.

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It may be an ancient route,but it’s now a very modern superhighway. Four and five lanes each way, 110 to 140 kmh. What an eye opener … And they claim, with considerable pride, that China now has more first class highway kilometres than the USA .

Straight through or over … Chinese road builders motto

Built in 9 months, this superhighway runs 1154 kms from Kunming to Lashio in Burma. 200,000 men employed, working 24/7. Very hard not to contrast that with roadworks here in Australia that take months and months and months for a few hundred metres.

We drive all day to Tengchong through and over valleys farmed in every conceivable corner. Wind turbines dot the ridge lines. Power lines everywhere. Even secondary roads look good – concrete or wide bitumen. All so impressive, clean and tidy.

Tengchong, like many places, looks like it’s been built in the last six months. High rise towers in groups of 6 to 30 dot the landscape. Cranes work everywhere. A lot of unoccupied new buildings.

20160302_092304We have a look at the Rehai Hotsprings Park, where despite the wonderful signs, I manage to get a bit lost in the mist. The water is hot enough to boil eggs. Eggs are for sale by entrepreneurs taking advantage of the mist. The bloke with these eggs scarpered, maybe he thought we’d report him for selling eggs. Signs tell you not to boil your egg! Carol contemplated Eggs Benedict, but obeyed the sign.       20160302_100126

Near Tengchong we see Heshan, a walled settlement with 1,000 Qing style houses, connected by cobbled streets and courtyards. And its library holds 70,000 books…


Colour, movement and fresh food.

Tengchong to Ruilli, the ‘Oriental Jewellery City’ on the China/Burma border. A furiously busy city, new buildings everywhere, dust and construction. We see Chinese, Burmese, Thais, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis – a melting pot of cultures. Nothing here for us, no time for jewellery shopping, Ruilli is a border town.

Clocks now run on Burmese time … which is apparently a much, much slower time.

Nearly four hours to get through the border. Interminable forms, paperwork, all done by hand. In quadruplicate. People of all nationalities and dress codes trying to bully their way past the border officials. More like ‘bored officials.’ Like, who cares about time?

And at last – beautiful, mystical, magical Myanmar.  Will always be Burma to me.

Old Burma Road (6)

Maybe I should get to work – still haven’t written any words on the next book. How can I, when this is outside, calling.  There’s always tomorrow …. isn’t there?

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