Travel time…Myanmar

I was on the tube the other day and the image of a tortoise popped into my head. Can’t remember the last time I saw one, for real I mean. They have a certain wisdom, a monk like reverance about their person – it must be the way they carry themselves. More haste less speed. Which reminds me – I will need to pack at some point. And I must finish the food in the fridge before I leave. Peppers, rice and nut loaf. I’ll do it tomorrow.


35 responses to “Travel time…Myanmar”

    1. Hello Poul! Hope you are good sir! I am looking forward to another trip to Asia – my word i love it! Hope alls good with you sir.

  1. On arrival in Bangkok, it’s like someone had hit the off switch. The shutdown of public offices meant the town had virtually ground to a halt. The street sellers where still there ofcourse, but the transport system crawled at a snails pace. I found the bus stop, took the no77 and found a guest house. It’s always great to be back in this city. Having rested up, the following morning I made my way to the Silom district of town and found the Myanmar embassy. After shuffling through queues, papers and money going back and forth, the embassy worker nodded. “Come back tomorrow please”.

    I decided to contemplate my travel options and caught the no3 to Mo Chit, the Northern Bus Terminal. On arrival, I pointed out to the conductor I hadn’t paid my fare. She looked up at me, turned away and waved her arm in the air. “Free, free”. Political concessions meant bus journey’s on government buses would be waived until March 2014.

    Bangkok buses, and around
    (Bangkok buses, and around)

    Peoples anxieties over rising living costs tipped into anger when bus fares, initially, also rose. The government conceded, but Pandora’s box had been flung open. The tide of anger spilled onto the streets and there you have it. “As soon as you’re born they make you feel small, by giving you no time instead of it all. Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all…” (Working Class Hero, John Lennon).

    From the smallest of acorns, to government shutdowns, politicians back peddling, parties politiking, military interventions, whistles, t-shirts, hats, red and yellow flags. A political carnival, of sorts. The wheels on the bus go round and round. Early in the morning.

    Waiting at Hua Lam Pong train station, Bangkok
    (Waiting at Hua Lam Pong train station, Bangkok)

    I wandered through Chinatown, one my favourite pastimes in Bangkok, picked up my passport (visa having been stamped) and looked forward to the journey ahead. I had decided against the train since it involved too many detours, and would instead take the bus to a Thai/Myanmar border post some 7 hours north of Bangkok, Mae Sot (Tak Province). I bought shampoo.

    Catching an early bus I reached the border town of Mae Sot a little tired, and lacking sleep. The roads turned from infinite highways to short, steep winding hills, the bus staggering and spluttering its way uphill. Traffic coming in the opposite direction tiptoed past. The scenery changed to dense lush forest.

    The bus station itself was a few miles from the border checkpoint. I managed to get a lift to the “freedom bridge” that crossed into Myanmar after asking for directions from a man keen to make use of his red pick up truck. He dropped me off, and gestured me to the only hotel on the border’s edge. I thanked him. As the sun fell, I went for a short walk – Myanmar visible across the way. Water created the dividing line; the bridge, unification. Border towns, always a beehive of activity; money and goods bought and sold. Faces, unfamiliar. “Good price, cigarettes”. Should be interesting, tomorrow.

    Myanmar border at Mae Sot, Thailand
    (Myanmar border town of Myawaddy at Mae Sot, Thailand)

  2. Great post mate…keep us up to date, sounds like an interesting trip so far. Loving the Lennon quote…be lucky! 🙂

    1. thanks matey, am having a great time – will update my blog over the weekend mate. I am in Myanmar, and its just great! best, Nad

  3. Mae Sot > Myawadi:
    Stop the Press. Rising early, I made my way to the border control and swiftly had my passport stamped. I strolled 400 metres across the bridge to the other side, all the while glancing from side to side at the river below. Final formalities undertaken on the Myanmar side of the bridge meant that was that. This is Myanmar. You see it and you feel it.

    Walking across the Moei river
    (Walking across the Moei river)

    Beyond the checkpoint town of Myawadi the roads narrow and become a mountainous dirt track with traffic only able to flow in one direction on alternate days. Today as luck would have it I entered against the flow so would have to stay the night near the border town. I met an Argentinian traveller, we decided to hitch as far as we could and then find a place a stay. We took some tea in a local market, people openly gave us seats and we drank and ate. Around us frenzied enterprise – people smiled, shook our hands, spoke pigeon english. “Hello, what is your name!”

    Myanmar checkpoint and crossing at Myawadi
    (Myanmar checkpoint and crossing at Myawadi)

    Myawadi > Thingan Nyi Naung:
    The easiest hitch I ever took. All of 10 miles! The driver took us as far as the road would allow then led us to a monastery where we were told we could stay until morning, when the traffic would be flowing in our direction.

    The monastery was “work in progress” but perfectly habitable. Dogs slept in the open courtyard, sheltered by the shade of the day sun. The monk spoke a little english – he was creating an education centre for local school children in the monastery itself. He showed us the make shift computer room and the library. Local guests were invited and we engaged.

    One family took us to the neighbouring village and fed us lunch. Fish, vegetables, rice, mince, water. A meal fit for kings. We walked around the village, visited a local night market then came back for a nights sleep. Exhausted, I fell into a slumber.

    Monk and students
    (Monk and students at Thingan Nyi Naung)

    Thingan Nyi Naung > Hpa-an:
    The following morning, we thanked the monk and took a mini-car along the trail to Hpa-an. The road, in places, was terrible. Bumpy, dusty and narrow. At certain points, trucks with cumbersome loads blocked the road, people busily repairing burst tyres. These dry arid paths surrounded by a hazy sea of evergreen, eclipsed by pagodas, monasteries. Two hours in, the roads improved and we made fast progress to Hpa-an, arriving in the late afternoon.

    On the road to Hpa-an
    (On the road to Hpa-an)

    By chance, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was holding a rally at the local football ground in the evening, so we decided to pop along and soak in the atmosphere. The National League for Democracy, NLD, regularly held rallies up and down the country. Not wishing to in anyway make light of this, it was a privilege to witness, grassroots politics in action. Flag waving, horns tooting, cameras clicking and the political symbol of modern Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi. Thank you for the memory.

    In the morning I said goodbye to Romero, my travelling companion for these days, and headed south.

    Aung San Suu Kyi rally
    (Aung San Suu Kyi rally, Hpa-an)

    Hpa-an > Mawlamyine:
    People in Asia seem to have a natural energy for politics, and are quite open about this. I am still not sure what the Burmese make of their colonial heritage, but clearly the legacy of language and architecture is all around. People say “hellooo” every chance they get. They are warm, friendly, gently curious. The make up of people is a mixture of tribal, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Bengali.

    This is further exentuated by the rich religious cocktail that envelops the country. On my many ambles I have come across elaborate churches, mosques, monasteries and hindu temples. All cloaked in a kind of colonial mystique, crumbling ramshackled buildings that seem to have seen better days, but somehow create the perfect historical backdrop.

    City life, Mawlamyine
    (City life, Mawlamyine)

    During my years at college I remember being asked to write a critique on George Orwell’s short essay, “Shooting an Elephant”. It was basically of his time as a police officer in Mawlamyine, where he lived for a number of years. “…As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt…”

    Sitting in a local tea room one afternoon, the owner gestured for me to go and sit out front. “This ceremony is once a year” or words to that effect. The tea room ran adjacent to a small market. From the building behind, a group of what can only be described as ordainly dressed “local dignitaries” marched their way to infront of the tea house, and took seats. Ten minutes passed before a man followed the procession, dressed in white, distinct for his elaborate head gear. He went to various stalls, performed some kind of ceremonial ritual and then dissapeared as swiftly as he came. A blessing of sorts, wishing future prosperity. The dignitaries shuffled behind. I smiled to myself. The man in the tea room, noticing, smiled back. Wow, great to witness this.

    Prosperity ritual, Mawlamyine
    (Prosperity ritual, Mawlamyine)

    I took a walk along the promenade, saw the sun fall over the town and then slept. In the morning I walked to the train station some 3km east of town and booked my train ticket to Yangon for the morning. The train station, a standalone, majestic relic. The station clerk wrote me out a ticket, promising me a window seat. I took a walk along the platform, then headed back into town. I love train journeys.

    sun down, Mawlamyine
    (sun down, Mawlamyine)

  4. Sadia & Pumpkin Avatar
    Sadia & Pumpkin

    Sounds like your having an amazing time, so jealous. Me and Pumpkin have been reading your blog and she was quite interested in the pictures. She said to say hi to Uncle Daffy! Look forward to next instalment. Very jealous of your trip, we all wish we could get away from the misery here! Just read about state of emergency in Bangkok right now. Stay safe and keep us posted x

  5. Nigel & Judy Collins Avatar
    Nigel & Judy Collins

    Another (to us!) amazing trip you’re having Nadeem. Interested in your Orwell quote, naturally, and being shoulder-to-shoulder with Burmese politics (after the Bangkok unrest) will likely make the 2015 UK election pretty dull for you! Keep going – & take care.

    1. Hello, yes Orwell suffered from a moral and political dilemma, riddled with guilt that he was effectively the “enforcer” of colonialism. It’s a great essay – Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell

  6. Mawlamyine > Yangon:
    The train shunted its way in and out of stations before reaching Yangon in the early evening. Rested on wooden seats, I had peered out the window all the while. On course the landscape had been transformed from a sea of jungle to miles of paddy fields and worked land. Pronounced by farmers pulling crop, children waving from small villages, golden topped pagodas and flowing rivers where oxen watered.

    My fellow passengers, as if it were second nature to them, mothered my every need. Water, lunch, chewing gum and ticket inspection. I shared my orange. Sellers passed the carriage with no let up for the entire journey, ensuring the herd was well grassed. Happy to be in such company, I embraced.

    Train journey to Yangon
    (Train journey to Yangon)

    Yangon took hold the following day. Early. I went for a wander. Shutters reeled open, pans frying, tea pouring, marketeers fashioning their goods. Fresh fish, vegetables. Tall, narrow streets teeming with life, buildings bruised with the smog of urban living. The streets are easily navigable, buses rattling past every few minutes, passengers slipping on and off seamlessly.

    I had clothing laundered. I took an overground train line (3 hours) that looped the entire city – touching every facet of Myanmar city dwelling. Still the sellers, they come. The intense sun does not dissuade them. I took refuge in the movie theatre, the lights fell and locals stood, swearing allegiance to their flag. A reel about a young boy that becomes a monk and then helps his parents when they fall on hard times.

    Street sellers, Yangon
    (Street sellers, Yangon)

  7. Booksellers have always been a personal favourite of mine. Paperbacks piled to the roof, spill out onto the street. The keeper hidden behind a patchwork of literature, dictionaries, algebra for beginners and empty leaf notebooks. Three days in, I decided to head north, so went to the bus station to enquire, changed money, packed a little and then spent the afternoon in a cafe – reading, reflecting. The time was passing so quickly.

    Booksellers, Yangon
    (Booksellers, Yangon)

    Yangon > Bagan (Nyuang U):
    The bus route to Bagan runs up the Yangon-Mandalay highway, before deviating west. Toll bridges and smooth tarmac give way to dusty, dry dirt tracks, separated by small towns and villages. Farmers tending to their land, stray dogs lying at the side of the road, lazed by the afternoon sun. Rickshaws part company and are replaced by horse and cart. The main drag in Nyuang U is a row of coffee shops, guest houses and eateries. I find a guest house, enquire about hiring a bicycle for the morning, and take tea. Milky and sweet.

    A bike ride takes you into Old Bagan, full of countless pagodas, all beautifully cloaked. Inside the pagodas sit the ever present buddha statues, impervious to the passage of time. Where features have now faded, locals purchase gold leaf and patch the dulled areas, restoring the buddha back to glistening life. There are thousands of these pagodas dotted around Old and New Bagan. I cycle out of town to the train station, then head back in and find myself down by the jetty watching some locals play Chinion, a sort of volleyball meets football combo. The sun, relentless.

    Buddha and Pagoda, Bagan
    (Buddha and Pagoda, Bagan)

    The following day I escape into the smaller villages, amongst farmers, goat herders, monks. As luck would have it, I found my way back to Bagan just before dusk, and from a vantage point at the top of a random pagoda, took in my surroundings. For that split second you are lost in the magic of it all. The sprawling pagodas before you, their red brick shimmering and brought to life, as the sun fades behind the mountains. Splendid.

    Pagodas at dusk, Bagan
    (Pagodas at dusk, Bagan)

    I thanked the shop keeper for the use of the bike and bought crisps. My legs ached.

  8. Really enjoying your tales matey…hope you are keeping well, sounds like a great journey…enjoy and and take care. Matt, Michelle & Sam x 🙂

    1. hehe… thanks matey… hope you are all keeping well, best, Nad 😉

  9. Bagan (Nyuang U) > Mandalay:
    The road to Mandalay began early. Around 4.30am. The train station, a good 7km out of town. Walking at that time in the morning, not a peep. Silence broken by the odd motorbike rumbling past and the occasional echo of dogs barking. By the time I reached Bagan station, the sun had begun its ascent and I found somewhere to sit and rest my feet.

    The whole engagement thing is really important. Its part and parcel of everyday life. People move around on the train, seating themselves anywhere, talking to seemingly random people as if they have known them their whole lives. To me it seems so uncluttered, so informal, and so (dare I say it), natural. I have spent too much time living in the city.

    The women opposite pass me their tiffin boxes. Rice, beans, fish. I plate up, thank them and eat. They get off at the next stop, I pass them their bags out of the train window and wave them off. New passengers come on, offer me more food, water and broken english. And so it continued, for the rest of the journey to Mandalay.

    Getting fed on the train to Mandalay
    (Being fed on the train to Mandalay)

  10. Nigel & Judy Collins Avatar
    Nigel & Judy Collins

    Wow, Nadeem, on ‘the road to Mandalay’, finally, & what an early start! Sounds an amazing communal train ride – & thanks for writing so well about it … the nearest we’ll ever get to experiencing it ourselves. Keep safe – & watch out for those ‘flying-fishes’!

    Nigel & Judy at FMF

    1. thanks Nigel/Judy, I am having a great time – will need to think of heading back south over this coming week. I think I will take my time – I am currently in Shan State (Hsipaw) ;-). Am planning to re-cross the border back into Thailand at the end of this week, 9th/10th Feb ( Myawadi/Mae Sot ). All the best, Nadeem

  11. Mandalay:
    Mandalay is laid out in blocks, split neatly by the railway station that sits slap bang in the middle. Coming from Bagan, it hits you suddenly that you are in the midst of a large city, and it took me a day or so to tweak. The usual hum of activity surrounds you. Its easy to wander the streets, stop in coffee houses and while away the days. So I did exactly that. Taxi drivers occupy every street corner and can tell an alien a mile off. “You want taxi, where do you come from?” Its the ones walking in the sun when locals walk in the shade, those carrying bottled water, those hugging maps, those. “Where you go?” “No idea, but er, thanks.”

    City life and Mandalay fort, Mandalay
    (City life and Mandalay fort, Mandalay)

    Away from the commercial heart of Mandalay, I take a walk to the ferry port which lies to the west of town. The Irriwaddy River, a wide expanse of water, alive with activity. Small shanty dwellings hug the shore, occupied with food sellers and children playing, flying paper kites. People, bathing and washing clothes. Goods are shipped on and off boats. Labourers, in the afternoon sun, loading boxes onto trucks. The city. Welcome to contradiction central. You can’t help but feel its all a bit of a tight rope walk for some. “What we need is more trade from outside, sir and quality goods, sir”. I nodded, meekly.

    Life on the Irriwaddy River, Mandalay
    (Life on the Irriwaddy River, Mandalay)

    1. Nigel & Judy Collins Avatar
      Nigel & Judy Collins

      (Life on the Irriwaddy River, Mandalay) … looks amazing, Nadeem! There is on-line currently an account of a hellish tourist journey by train from Rangoon to Bagan … which sounds & looks v. different from yours. We prefer yours …. & think your adaptability & tolerance the likely factor in the contrast. Or you might just be a lucky fella? Take care on your return. N & J at FMF

      1. I love train journeys. Its the best way to interact with locals and get a snapshot of your environment – its been a joy. Its that engagement thing I mentioned, so important in Asia. Yes agreed, I guess i’m probably quite a tolerant lad, can’t imagine where i get that from… hehe 😉

  12. Wow – the train trip to Mandalay sounds great. Keep having fun. Marts.

    1. thanks Marts, am loving it. Go back to Thailand at the end of the week – should be interesting ;-). I hope you are well matey. Best to Kirsty and the boys, Nad

  13. This is an amazing journey! I should not be surprised by the number of pagodas as Burma has always been noted for this incredible architecture The one in Bagan looks huge as it towers over it’s lofty position and I will be interested to know the condition of the actual buildings with many years of comparable neglect. Even patching up the statues of Buddha with gold leaf must be costly. I wish you well as you continue and hope for a safe journey. Best wishes from John Constable.

    1. thanks John, I am having a great time. Yes its a little overwhelming at times I have to say, but a privilege to witness and absorb. Ironically the neglect only adds to that sense of nostalgia. Some pagodas are more cared for than others, there are literally thousands! I hope you are good, regards, Nadeem

  14. Mandalay > Hsipaw:
    Hsipaw is some 10 hours east of Mandalay, in the mountainous region of Shan state. The train journey slopes into the hill stations from the early hours (4am start!), worming through small villages and towns. At each stop, passengers get off, stretch their legs, eat. The train whistles its departure and passengers scramble back on.

    A good 7 hours into the journey the train comes to the Gokteik viaduct. Standstill. Then, perched, the train gently creeps forwards. Free of rail girders either side of the viaduct and over 300 feet high, the view is breathtaking. Deep gorges, ravines. The heart thumps as the train continues its crawl. All the passengers, silent. Bird on a wire. Finally, we clear the viaduct, pass through a short tunnel and rumble our way on, to Hsipaw.

    crossing the Gokteik viaduct, en route to Hsipaw
    (Crossing the Gokteik viaduct, en route to Hsipaw)

  15. Hi mate, what a fantastic trip, thanks for sharing your adventures again. I’m heading back to asia in May and thinking of going there. Happy travels. Colin

    1. Hi Colin, yes do go mate its great especially if you are an independent traveller. You can pick up a one month visa in Bangkok and cross the land border at Mae Sot, Thailand. I would advise it – just for the culture “contrast”. People are wonderful, very gentle, easy going. Hope alls good mate, best, Nadeem

  16. Hsipaw:
    Hsipaw itself is a small hill town, noted for its make up of local tribes that inhabit the surrounding areas. Nowhere is this more obvious than the early morning market, where villagers come to sell their crop. Jostling for buyers.

    I didn’t wander out to the hills and the tribal areas, instead opting to cycle amongst the paddy fields out of town, watching the farmers tend the land. From the hills you could see the fertile grounds patterned like a patchwork quilt. Small villages dotted all over. Cattle grazing, field workers picking, watering. The occasional sound of a machete hacking its way through overgrown banana plantations. “No mister, you go that way.” My sense of direction deserting me at every turn.

    Landscape, Hsipaw
    (Landscape, Hsipaw)

    I took a haircut at the barbers and played football at the local sports field.

    There is something deeply satisfying about economic distribution. If often crosses my mind. Banana cake and water from the little shop around the corner; tea and sympathy from the tea house; spicy noddles from the stall that would set up in the evenings. The unfamiliar becomes familiar and connected. A nod, a look, affirmation that it matters.

    Local Market, Hsipaw
    (Local market, Hsipaw)

    Hsipaw > Pyin Oo Lwin > Yangon > Hpa-an > Myawadi
    Written as a retrospective from Bangkok.

    After some days, I began to think of the journey to the border. The northern border (at Tachileik), whilst closest to me, meant too many obstacles (permits, flights etc) so I opted to retrace my steps and head back to Yangon, with a view to crossing back over at Myawadi.

    With this in mind I stopped at Pyin Oo Lwin, a former colonial hill station. The town had a distinctly south Indian feel to it. Hindu Temples, thali’s, indian sweets. I spent my solitary day exploring the market, talking to the band of seamsters hemming garments for the military, and donating my travelling companion, a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, to the public library. It now takes its pride of place amongst the other (few) dusted english books on offer- the librarian atleast seemed pleased.

    The horse, cart and seamster, Pyin Oo Lwin
    (The horse, cart and seamster, Pyin Oo Lwin)

    Overnight buses ensured I arrived, stayed and passed through Yangon and Hpa-an without too much trouble. The familiar, quietly reassuring. All the while, I had this sense that time was slipping away and soon all this would be delegated to memory. A day after arriving in Hpa-an, the traffic flowed in my favour and I found myself at the border in Myawadi. I wanted to stay overnight in Myawadi but all the guest houses were full. Resigned and reluctant, I crossed the border back into Mae Sot, Thailand. Dotted the i and crossed the t.

    Children en route to Myawadi
    (Children en route to Myawadi)

    For me its all about the people of Myanmar. There is an innocent sincerity to them that is endearing. Hospitable, gently curious, giving. It sticks out prominently in my mind just how liberating and fulfilling the engagement with people has been. Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than on the train journeys I took, ordinary class. Fed, watered, guided the whole way around Myanmar.

    1. Nigel & Judy Collins Avatar
      Nigel & Judy Collins

      Sounds like a bit of a tortured return, Nadeem … but you’re clearly making the best of it – as usual! Have been following your journey with some difficulty, as our present World Atlas has either too many old town names or new ones … can’t make out which? But if you carry on travelling in Asia, we’ll definitely need a BETTER one! Stay safe the rest of the way home. (There has a been a strike on the Tube while you’ve been away – details will seem surreal after your experiences on ‘Burma Rail’!!) N & J at FMF

      1. many thanks for the heads up – re:underground. Yes i will miss Myanmar – really great people, beautiful country. Very happy to have had the experience, and sad its over! There you go. Ah-ha!, I smell an idea for a xmas/birthday/any excuse present! hehe… best regards, Nadeem

  17. I read Myanmar now has some ATM machines – also how much in US dollars would you recommend for a month’s travel there eg $1500 ( are you back home now or still travelling ?)

    1. Hi Colin,

      I have just arrived home. I would not budget for more than $30 per day and thats at the very top end, for me atleast. I spent near $15/20 max per day in reality. ( max $15 budget for sleeping, $15 for food/travel costs ) For example, most guest houses I stayed at cost around $6-$10 per night, for a single room. Mandalay was near to $18 per night ( single room, attached bathroom ). Guest houses and trains normally only take dollars rather than local currency so have plenty of $5/$10/$20s in your budget; Myanmar does have ATMs now but I didn’t rely on it too much, I never used them. Most importantly ensure you have “new” dollars, i.e ideally issued 2006/9 or later, no tears, marks etc. Its very safe to travel with money there. There are money changers everywhere – if you change a $100 for local currency you will get a favourable rate and this can be used for food/buses – it will last you quite a while! Hope that helps, Nadeem

      1. Thanks for that – i always enjoy reading your blog and photos. It’s four years now since we met in Laos – time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin into the …. where to next for you?

      2. You’re welcome Colin. I will probably go back to Asia again in the winter for a longer period, 3/4 months – but i think India (South East/South West coastline)/Sri Lanka/Bangladesh are most likely… don’t plan this stuff so will see nearer the time 😉 Enjoy Myanmar, and do let me know if you need any other information sir. regards, Nadeem

  18. For travel time in Vietnam, click here.
    For travel time in Jordan, click here.
    For travel time in Syria, click here.
    For travel time in Turkey, click here.
    For travel time in Laos, click here.
    For travel time in Cambodia, click here.
    For travel time in Thailand, click here.
    For travel time in Malaysia, click here.
    To go to the start of this blog, click here.
    To go to, click here.

  19. Salut Nadeem,
    now back in the Pyrenees I just read about your birmese trip, leaving again for a little while… We met on that bus from Hpa-an and admired the art of asian film producers, trying not to look at that small screen in front of us..Too many tears…
    grace of you I changed all my travel plans and also did that famous train ride from Hsipaw passing the Gokteik bridge (your photo is phantastic!)
    So thanks a lot for that!!!
    Happy travels and have a good time where ever you are just now..
    peace and love….

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