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Potholes & Pagodas: Biking Burma
by Gail Day

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“You’re fat!” baldly declared the not-quite-sober man who had stumbled off his scooter and seated himself uninvited at our Mandalay sidewalk-restaurant table. As I can easily pass for a Sumo wrestler or the Michelin Man, his comment was an understatement which I took in my stride. I had, in any event, packed my sense of humour knowing that miniscule Southeast Asians, despite being by culture and inclination very polite, remark unashamedly on the size of Westerners.

Friend, Charl, and I spent 30 days cycling 1,300 km in Burma (Myanmar) during December 2007 / January 2008. I am not an expert on Burma or Buddhism or even bicycles. This is not an academic tome, therefore. It is a record of what we learned and saw and did, and how we felt about it. While Potholes & Pagodas summarises Burma’s history and politics and economy, this is done in readable boxed text which can be dipped into by the reader – or not. The more serious issues are leavened with snippets on topics as wide-ranging as betel nut chewing, banyan trees and traditional Burmese clothing.

We loved our time in Burma. The Burmese are kind and curious, generous and gentle. But we were acutely aware of the absence of tourists in the wake of the September 2007 protests and killings and the blatant fear-tactics of a dictatorial state. One taxi driver assured us: “All the people hate this government. Is not government. Murderers, robbers. Everything broken in Burma.” This is not strictly true, but it comes heartbreakingly close.

Cycling in Burma is both trying (appalling roads) and delightful (wonderful people – despite comments about my size – and extraordinary tourist sites).

“Outrageously picturesque” Inle Lake held us spell-bound. Around its shores and in stilt-houses in its waters live 70,000 Intha people, “sons of the lake.” The Intha row their boats standing up and using one foot wrapped around a single oar. They fish using a variety of unusual contraptions. They grow tomatoes on floating hyacinth. They train cats to jump through hoops at a water-bound monastery. They weave scarves from the stem fibre of lotus plants.

We were captivated by a temple atop a volcanic plug, home to Burma’s 37 nat (saints); and a rock balancing on a cliff face, gilded and glowing in the sunrise; and a wooden monastery elaborately carved, where fables and myths play at hide-and-seek; and a cave containing over 8,000 Buddha images; and the plain of Bagan where more than 2,000 temples stand in mind-boggling array; and the famed Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, about which W. Somerset Maugham in 1930 said: “The Shwedagon rose superb, glistening with its gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul…”.