Hot springs and cold beers

Yesterday, I went on a day’s bike ride with my new friends Matthew and Arian. We set off at around 11am, hiring ‘delux’ bikes from a bloke up the road. I was grateful for both of the gears mine had. I was also glad to have someone else map reading (cue sniggers about my world class geography degree).

We set off in search of the hot springs. En route we stopped off at the small village (really no more than 20 houses, I guess) and came across a sugar producing factory (well, an open walled bamboo and wooden hut with 5 people producing sugar from sugar cane). This being Burma, they didn’t shoo us away or warn us about the health and safety dangers of approaching the boiling cauldron of liquid sugar. Instead, they greeted us with wide smiles, invited us to drink the pure liquid coming off the sugar cane, help them to make the solid sheets of brown sugar (think sweet kendal mint cake), and offered us samples to try. It was really interesting to see the process up close and I took some nice photos that I’ll share here when wifi connections allow.

Then onto the hot springs, preceded by a bowl of shan noodle soup (Matthew had 2 bowls – part sign of how good it is, part reflection of his gluttony). When I say hot springs, we’re talking 2 small swimming pools with increasingly hot water, allegedly containing minerals that – amongst other things – help to cure gout. We enjoyed the water, chatted, took in the sun and then noticed someone carrying a beer in a cooled glass tankard. No need to spell out what happened next. And again. Pure bliss.

Amazingly, the bikes cooperated when we went to leave and we headed off in the direction of a vineyard (yes, you heard it here first – Burma has a vineyard). The restaurant and tasting station were right at a the top of a peak overlooking the beautiful rural countryside we had cycled through, part lake, part sugar cane farming country. Arian and I enjoyed the wine tasting menu, a full glass of the Shiraz Tempranillo and a light bite to eat to sustain us for the cycle home. Matthew missed the vineyard in favour of finding a hotel for the night and a flight to Thailand. Poor decision.

The countryside around the lake is breathtakingly beautiful – field after field filled with sugar canes, carts pulled by oxen, women carrying their wares to market, and always a friendly smile and ‘hello’ from 95% of the people you pass. I caught myself as I was cycling along, smiling a bigger and broader smile than I have done for a long time. The country makes me very happy indeed.

Tonight I take the night bus to Bagan for a few days temple watching, some of it by bicycle, some by hot air balloon. Let’s hope the road to Bagan is kind to me…


Inle Lake

I have spent the last 3 days by Inle Lake. Day before yesterday I took a one-day boat trip for one around the lake. We set off at 8am when the mist was still rising off the water and visibility wasn’t so great, but the scene was spectacular. Like something from a Charlotte Bronte novel.

We took in lots of interesting stuff – a local market selling everything from jewellery and clothes to vegetables and oxen. Then it was off to a factory making clothes spun from the fibre inside lotus flower stalks – pretty amazing – where I bought a beautiful pink traditional Burmese skirt. I also saw silver being made and cigars being rolled elsewhere. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant on stilts over the lake. The sink outside the toilet was quite literally a steel sink unit hanging over the lake – the waste water just fell into the lake below. Funny. I also hoped to see some cats that have been taught to jump through hoops by monks at a monastry on the lake, but there was no feline action to be seen. Rumour was they were cat-napping (ahem…).

While at the monastry I bumped into Aussie Matthew and Dutch Arian who I had met and music’d with at the bar in Kalaw. We made plans for dinner and beers and I saw them later. We were joined by Becca from Canada, her German boyfriend Johannes and Michelle from Melbourne. A trans-continental dinner party.

The lake is stunning – it emerges out of the reeds and you are never clear where it starts or finishes. It reminded me a bit of Lake Titicaca (sp?) which sits between Peru and Bolivia which I visited back in 1997. Like its South American equivalent, it also boasts floating islands and a dreamy feeling.

I do wonder about my extreme love of being on or by the water. When my dad and I took a weekend away in Whitehaven earlier in the year to trace his roots, I realised that his family had sea-faring credentials going back generations. Can salt water run in your blood? Maybe there is some other explanation…

Kalaw to Nangshwe

I had a lovely time in the dusty town of Kalaw. It wasn’t quite as physically demanding (i.e. trekking) as I had hoped as I have picked up a cold which has knocked me for six a bit. Today I had a 3 hour nap at midday – not like me at all. But when you’re surroundings are like this, who cares about a cold?…

I read a hell of a lot in Kalaw. I read Letters from Burma by Ang Sang Suu Kyi which which a beautiful account not just of her time after being released from house arrest, but about this wonderful country, its people, their customs and the hardships of everyday life. I’d highly recommend it. I then moved on to a book called The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, recommended to be my the lovely Jennifer. It’s about a guy – Randy – who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is asked to deliver ‘the last lecture’ as his university – apparently a custom in the US where academics deliver what they would say if it were their last lecture. In other words, they are supposed to distill their knowledge into the most important lessons. He delivers his on fulfilling your childhood dreams. The book is an extension of the lecture, and is an important reminder of the importance of focusing on what you really want – not what you think you should want or others will expect of you – and having the courage, drive and focus to achieve it. Corny in parts, but very uplifting. He quotes Walt Disney, who said, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it’. Couldn’t agree more.

Two everyday things have struck me about Burma. First, there are dogs everyone – that makes me happy, although I want to take all of them home with me. Second, I hear sweeping wherever I go. At times, I wonder if I am hearing things – doesn’t matter where I am, I will always hear the familiar sound of a woman with an old fashioned broomstick sweeping away. Strangely comforting.

First thing this morning, I caught a bus to Nangshwe which is the town nearest Inle Lake. The bus journey was a traveller’s delight – watching the mist rise through the trees and over the hills. I saw so much of Burmese life on the way there – going through small hamlets and villages, women selling their wares on the side of the road, having to stop while a herd of cows crossed the road, a bull striding down the side of the road on his way to knows what, men and women working together to build a new road, and dozens of young children playing on their way to school.

My hotel in Nangshwe is beautiful. I have a small bungalow with its own veranda – there are just 8 at the hotel and we have a swimming pool (the only one in the town apparently). I have visions of playing the guitar on that veranda later. Shortly I am off to see a traditional Burmese puppet show before dinner and tomorrow I have booked a boat ride for one on Inle Lake. I love being on the water and apparently it’s really beautiful, but cold first thing so my trusty blanket will be making the journey with me. The following day may well involve a bike ride and some hot springs – both of which might just clear this darned cold…