Hot Springs and Tofu: An Inle Lake Bike Ride
By Dave Fox
Nyaung Shwe, Burma (Myanmar)
[Regular readers of this website might recall, I was on a roll with my blogging from my trip to Burma last fall with my wife, Kattina, and our friends, Gary and Rena. Other projects sidetracked me from those tales for a while, but I’ve got many more to tell. So here we go!]
It was our last full day in Nyaung Shwe and we were up early, straddling rickety bicycles and dodging big potholes. As we pedaled away from the town center, the road morphed from asphalt to gravel, and then to dirt.
Tangles of magenta lotuses bobbed in swampy waters by the roadside. Oxcarts and motorbikes passed us as we pedaled. Tractors, overflowing with passengers, left us enveloped in clouds of dust as they sputtered past.
I was along for the ride – happy to drift wherever the day led us. Rena, however, had a plan: Hot springs and tofu.
She had read about both in our Lonely Planet Burma guidebook. Hot springs in the area were rich in minerals and were rumored to be therapeutic for everything from blood circulation to neuropathic pains, from digestion to dermatology. They were, some people claimed, one-stop shopping for all your medical needs.
The tofu, our guidebook said, was further down the road. The village of Kaung Daing was renowned for its tofu — made from split yellow peas, rather than bean curd. The peas gave it a richer flavor and hardier texture.
We rode for several miles as the day’s heat crept in. When we arrived at the hot springs, they were not what we were expecting.
In the Olympic Mountains near Seattle, where the four of us used to live, there are hot springs in national parks. They’re just there – out in the open for anyone to enjoy. These Burmese hot springs, on the other hand — in a land where so many things make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time — was sadly commercialized.
A spa channeled spring water into three small pools that offered a wide view over Inle Lake. At eight US dollars for a soak, the prices were a bargain by Western standards, but inflated far beyond what an average local resident could afford. The water’s mineral content gave it a mucky appearance. And with air temperatures at 32 degrees Celsius and rising. sitting in a pool of hot water did not seem enticing. We made a unanimous decision to ride on.
A mile or two later, at a fork in the road, we stopped to check our map. That’s when a wiry old man appeared from a house. He was all riled up. He seemed excited, and a little crazy, as he asked us in basic English where we were from and where we were going.
“Tofu village?” Rena said, and after a couple of attempts, the man seemed to understand. The fork in the road, he communicated through sign language, unforked in the distance. The two branches would rejoin each other. It didn’t matter which way we went.
We thanked him.
“You come with me!” he half-shouted. Then he ran inside his house.
The four of us looked at each other. Were we supposed to wait for the man? Follow him inside? Or was he crazy and gone? There was something about him, something a little too excitable. We decided to start riding. I took up the rear.
Five minutes later, I heard a motorbike. Then I heard anxious shouting that could only be our wound-up friend.
“You come with me!” he shouted again as he caught up to me. He wanted to take us to his son’s house.
We didn’t really have a choice if we were going to go this way. So we did as instructed, arriving minutes later at a rickety farm. In a shaded but open, barn-like structure, the man’s son kneeled on a wobbly bench, stirring a wok, full of oil that sizzled atop a wood-burning stove.
The man’s son dunked dollops of mashed yellow peas in the oil, then fished them out with a strainer. The result was a crunchy snack resembling corn chips. We bought two bags, thanked the family, and rode on.
Our tofu curiosities satisfied, we continued to a field where a dozen Buddhist stupas were overgrown with weeds. Super-loud prayer chants blasted from loudspeakers across the road. After 20 minutes or so, just as I was wondering if it was recorded or live, the chanting paused momentarily, and a sound echoed across the land of a monk clearing his throat.
We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. We paused at other monasteries and lakefront overlooks. We met picnicking families and curious dragonflies.
It was close to 4 p.m. by the time we rolled back into central Nyaung Shwe. I was ready for a shower and a nap. But we had one final push, and we had to get there before it closed in an hour.
Outside town in the other direction from which we’d come, Nyaung Shwe had a winery. Getting there would require a hurried ride up a steep hill.
“Can we make it before closing?” I wondered.
We ignored our fatigue and decided to go for it.
[To be continued….]