Monday, January 20, 2020

A Much Needed Bike Tour

Walking eight to ten kilometres ever other has been good but I needed something else. The U Bein Bridge spans the Taungthaman Lake near Mandalay. The 1.2-kilometre bridge was built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teak-wood bridge in the world. It was about ten kilometres from my hotel and my first thought was, I could walk that. Nah, I was bored with walking. I figured it was an easy GRAB ride, cool but boring. There had to be something better.  A little bit of searching and I found it, Grasshopper Tours. I have seen them throughout Asia and the feedback and reviews are usually favorable. I booked a bike ride through the countryside with stops at various villages and cultural shops and then finishes at the bridge where I would get a sunset view from my private longboat. Click, submit and booked for a 9:00 AM hotel pick up the next day.

My over-eager and obviously very new guide was chatty and funny. Penn introduced himself and confirmed that he was a brand new guide and had just finished his training a few weeks previously. We drove the 45 minutes to where the trip would begin and after about 15 minutes of idle chatter he stopped and let me enjoy the ride. I was the only person on the tour and I think he sensed it could go sideways quickly if he did not slow down a bit.

After a quick test of the bike, we were off.  We started in the ancient town of Ava where we rode about 15 KM down dirt roads and through small villages throughout the area. The tour was going to show me how people of the area made a living that was not directly related to farming.

The biking was easy on mostly flat dirt tracks and side roads. Our first stop was a tobacco house where I watched ladies spread out tobacco, roll it with a small filter and package them into bundles. It was fast and efficient. The ladies were laughing, talking and showing off a bit for me. They kept encouraging me to smoke and buy a bundle. Mom, Grandmother, ,granddaughter and sister all working under the weary but eagle eyes of a great grandmother.

Our second stop was a house that made metal pots for all the temples and monks to use for alms. The hand process was cutting the metal, then pressing it over make the bowl, trimming the edges and finally painting it with multiple layers of metallic paint. I was told the single worker could make 40 bowls a day which is an impressive feat considering what he was working with.

Our third stop was a sour mango house where a family of 6 were pressing, cutting weighing and packaging sour mangoes for retail sale. It is a crazy popular treat in Myanmar. The taste did not agree with me. Next up was a neighborhood with bamboo manufacturing. It was an impressive sight to see these workers take strips off of bamboo poles and weave them together, flawlessly and fast. Bamboo is used for everything. Construction of homes, fences, gates, floors. The lifespan is about 25 years as it does not get beaten down by the weather. Although concrete homes are becoming more popular in the area, bamboo was still in use everywhere.

Finally, we stopped at a hand textile weaving house that had been around weaving the same methods for over 100 years. A gap-toothed 95 years old smiled when we showed up. All her daughters and granddaughters were weaving immaculate and colorful Longyi which are worn by most men. Wooden looms with one threat at a time method resulting in meticulous and perfect designs.

After our visits to the various family businesses, we sat for a snack of warm red rice and tofu. Pann happily regaling about the success of all these family businesses. The work very hard together and share everything. It is about pride, support, and success together. None of this "hourly wage words". 

We sat for a bit on our little plastic chairs eating off our little plastic table and naturally when it came time to get up I thought "ah shit". I did not have an elegant lift off. We saddled up and continued on through other small villages and in and around the peaceful banana, rice and bean fields.

We had a stop at an old library that had been destroyed by various earthquakes over the years. It was nice enough to have a look, but I was more impressed with the local kids who saw a business opportunity. These ingenious little future millionaires have recognized societies' obsession with taking photos. There were about 6 or 7 of them and they would hang out with the tourists, but not in a pesky way. They were funny kids really. They would then offer to take photos and most people obliged. Hooked! Now the kids would happily follow their new friends all over the ruins, helping to take photos and sharing whatever limited details they made up about the place. In the end, they were given a few Khat for their help and off they would go to the next person or couple. Again, they were not pesky kids asking for a handout, they were industrious marketing mavericks who were developing real-world communication skills, without begging. I had a great time with a few of them but along with the way we never took any photos.

Sunset at U Bein Bridge was our end game. Built-in 1859, the 1200 footbridge is the longest teak bridge in the world. It has been around for 161 years and history has been hard on the old girl. There are now areas of concrete support but it does not take away from the beauty and nostalgia of the Bridge.

After a full day biking and roaming the back roads and fields of the old capital area we pulled into the bus jammed parking lot. Chinese! I love the Chinese people. They are loud, abrasive and more often rude but they enjoy what they are doing and always are happy doing it. We dropped our bikes off at the van, who was waiting for us. Penn grabbed a small cooler and we headed down to the chaos that was the longboat dock. The boats were very colorful in the fading light as each oarsman was looking for their nightly ride. We jumped in one, get settled and I was passed a cold beer. Nice work Penn.

We munched watermelon, sandwiches, and cookies as we headed out into the calm and shallow lake. It was no more than 18 inches but it was dark and inky, I had no intention of getting in for any reason. We were rowed in and around the bridge. Passing under it gave an impressive view of both the height and length. Our oarsman had his sunset timing down. We passed back under the bridge and lined up with everyone else. You with think madness would ensue as everyone would jostle for position. Nope, that never happened. Boats eased to let each other in while smiling passengers were encouraging a great view for each other. It helped that everyone was drinking beer, wine or in one case champagne. Nice work there.

Boats moved about creating postcard-worthy silhouettes against the fading sun and the sparse crowd standing on the bridge. Everyone looking west.  A Sunset over a place like this will beat a beach sunset every time for me.

What a great day. I saw first-hand various forms of workmanship that we would probably take for granted in the West. The remains of an ancient library and temple meshed with green rice fields and blossoming banana fields. This gentle life had existed like this for generations. Yes, there were tourists, and Mobile Phones and even electricity, but look deep enough and you can see history etched in all the genuine smiling faces that surrounded you. There is a gentleness about the people of Myanmar that is tough to describe. Not that they will be pushed around by anyone, it goes well beyond that. It is a true kindness etched in their DNA. It is also pride and excitement to share their country.

Remember, Myanmar has recently come out of a violent civil war and it is still ruled with an iron fist. Human rights abuses are widespread, government corruption is rife, and abject poverty is real. The great thing is that Myanmar has recognized the value that foreign tourist brings, both in dollars and learned experiences. My eyes are open to the incredible beauty and history that presents itself. The people are some of the warmest and genuine that I have even come across in my travels. If you ever think about going to Myanmar, stop thinking and just GO! It will be memorable. 

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