Nyaung Shwe: Bike Ride to the Hot Spring

Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar


January 8, 2004


Nyaung Shwe Dear Family and Friends,

Yes. You read the title of this piece correctly. A Bike - as in Bicycle - Ride. I was persuaded by the hotel staff that a trip to the Hot Spring would be a pleasant activity for the day. Since I was planning a rest today anyway, as I anticipated a travel day tomorrow, I agreed to a test drive.

Given my recent history, I approached this event with reluctance and apprehension.

Including today, I have been on a bicycle exactly three times in the past four years. And before that? 20 years ago? 30 years? Maybe more.

Four years ago, at the very beginning of my two week piano vacation in Lubec, Maine, I hopped on a bike on a country road, panicked at the sight of an oncoming car, crashed to the ground and ended up at the Emergency Room of Machias Hospital where X-rays confirmed that I had a slightly separated shoulder.

How embarrassing! As a boy, I rode my English racer on the streets of The Bronx where it was necessary to slide through a very, very narrow channel between a fat public bus on your left and the parked cars on your right.

The second attempt, three years ago, was on a mountain bike I bought from my good friend Jeff who was emigrating to Thailand. I rode around my neighborhood in Aventura but I was so scared witless that I ended the adventure very quickly.

Later I realized that in both cases the seat was too high. I just never had control. So today, I tried to prove the old maxim correct. Usually, it is used in certain other circumstances: "You know, it's just like riding a bike. You never forget." The guy who rented me the bike adjusted the seat three times and the handle bars once and off I went to explore the roads and the hills of Myanmar. I had one other good idea this morning. I stopped at the edge of town for a liter of water and a bunch of bananas.

The hotel guy said he makes the trip to the Hot Spring in thirty minutes. Most foreigners take forty-five. I estimated at least two hours.

"The road will be a little bumpy in places." The understatement of the millennium. About fifteen minutes out of town, the asphalt road turned to dirt, filled with rocks. There was a narrow, smooth path on the side of the road but I thought I would end up in a ditch. So after a few minutes of this rocky road, I decided to walk.

The scenery is lovely. The road is shaded. All around are houses on stilts, farms, wild plants and lots of birds.

After a while I got frustrated. I parked the bike at the side of the road, and stood under a huge tree that was surrounded by a forest of thin green bamboo. I had a drink and a banana and then I remembered, "Today is Saturday. Shabbos. A day to rest." Why not head back to town and have a nice rest at the hotel? The road ahead was head UP. No way could I pedal that road, bumpy or smooth.

And then I thought, "On Shabbos, it is a tradition to take a nice walk." So I motivated myself to walk up that hill on that bumpy red dirt road to see where it would take me.

Praise the Lord! At the crest of the hill was the turnoff leading to the Hot Spring. And the road was paved. And it headed DOWN! Now "paved" it was - compared to dirt. But "paved" as in "paved" is a bit inaccurate. The road was bumpy, rutted, and patched. Uneven would be more polite. A road only Romanians would recognize.

On the road I encountered all the local means of transportation. Small trucks, tractors, horse carts and pairs of bullocks grudgingly pulling carts.

Just before the Hot Spring I spotted a stone stairway headed up the side of the hill. Something there is that does love a stair. I climb 'em when I see 'em. So down came the kickstand and up came my bag with water and camera.

The stairs were old. On the sides of the path were old stone chairs and fountains, all inscribed with Burmese script. My goal was a Temple at the top. The climb was easy and at the top I turned to the valley below. Splendid!! The best vista I have seen so far in Myanmar, or anywhere this year.

I thought, "Here is the real Myanmar." A vast expanse of watery farms crisscrossed with canals. The large Inle Lake to the south. Mountains on the horizon. Farmers in the fields. Men paddling small wooden canoes dredging the canals for fresh top soil. Women caring for their children and the poultry.

Teenage boys - teamsters - guiding a pair of bullocks pulling a cart of fire wood or fresh produce. Little boys riding on the backs of those huge bullocks I went into the Temple, sat in front of Buddha, and with the help of a man there with his family, I said a few prayers. Then lots of pictures; a group of young boys, I think from the orphanage nearby and another family, mostly young girls. I gaped again at the valley, and headed down to the bike and the Hot Spring nearby.

The Hot Spring is located at a small hotel with lovely gardens and ornamental trees. The Hot Spring area itself was very ordinary. Basically an outdoor concrete compound of changing rooms, showers and two pools. One small round pool with very hot water and one oval pool with not so hot water. Believe me sports fans, I needed them both, several times. I rested under an umbrella on a chaise lounge between dunkings, had a soft drink and tried to relax these old muscles.

Now after climbing and walking and pedaling, you must know what I was planning as I was dozing in the shade. Any guesses? I figured that with all the vehicle traffic, my bike and I should be able to hitch a ride back to town.

I did try several times but no luck. Finally, a truck came by, up went the bike and I sat down in the back with the driver's family - six women of various ages.

I thought they understood where I was going. Serious. Serious. Serious miscalculation. First of all I ended up sitting on the steel shelf on the side of the truck. The truck had absolutely no springs or shock absorbers. I regretted this ride after about three seconds. Every bump, rut or patch in the road went straight to my backside. I thought my ass would break into about fifty pieces. The women with me were utterly unnerved, stoic and comfortable. I couldn't understand how they could endure this bone jarring, teeth shattering ride. "Could it be," I thought, "that they possess a more fully equipped posterior anatomy?"I jumped truck when I thought I was at the turnoff back to town. Again, serious miscalculation.

The truck dropped me off several kilometers beyond the road I was looking for. So I backpedaled, and back pedaled. By now the setting sun was approaching the top of the hills and I needed my sweater. I panicked a little but mostly I was angry.

Then another truck came my way so this time I ended up riding on top of a pile of rocks headed for a construction site. When we finally got to the turnoff for town, I politely got off, anticipating that rocky road again. I thought it would be better to walk.

Actually this whole misadventure was my own fault. I had pedaled beyond my turnoff when the first truck picked me up. I need a course in orienteering, or maybe a new pair of glasses. I headed back to town as the sun went down. The rays lighting up the sides of the houses on stilts. Flocks of birds were paddling around in the canals and kids were all out playing ball and yelling "hello." A hot shower and a hot meal awaited.

Dinner. First a tomato salad with slices of green peppers topped with a sauce of crushed fried peanuts and onions. Splendid. Then vermicelli with vegetables and chicken and cups of hot English tea all served by a charming, dignified, beautiful twenty-four year old woman. All splendid.

Was it all worth the trip? Ask me tomorrow if I make it through the night without some severe leg and thigh cramps. I plan to pop a Naproxen or two and a hydro-codeine tab. I know. I know, Dr T. and Dr D. - Naproxen is not the med of choice for muscles. But I'll give it a try. I am hoping the codeine will just knock me out. So, a splendid day in the mountains of Myanmar.

Actually all my days here have been splendid. I am looking forward to Mandalay and Bagan.

Train rides and boat trips.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shavuot Tov.


PS. I have noticed recently that as I mature, I am getting a little clumsy. I am thinking that I should take up a sport to regain some muscle tone and coordination. Since ice skating, gymnastics and springboard diving are out of the question, maybe I will try biking. Uli, I am ready.

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