We have beer money… now where’s our beer??

By now you surely know of our struggles to get our hands on some cold hard rupees. Turns out, that was nothing compared to our struggle in turning those rupees into ice cold beer.

You see, Kerala is going dry… words I still shudder to write more than a month later. The reasons don’t appear to be religious, but rather an overreaction to Kerala’s unenviable status as India’s top imbiber of alcohol, with all the corresponding social ills that follow: domestic violence, drunk driving, listening to Coldplay.

Now I’m not heartless to these concerns, but first, prohibition doesn’t work, something we Americans know a thing or two about, and second, cycling is proven to make you parched and after a long day in the saddle it’s my right as a Vishnu-fearing non-Hindu to have an ice-cold Kingfisher, maybe two, or was it ten… alcohol impedes arithmetic as well.

Having ignored the warnings in our Lonely Planet, reality set in quickly that first night in Kovalam. I ordered a beer with my dinner and am pleased to report it arrived promptly — in a paper bag, placed on the floor under the table, and served in a coffee mug.

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And that was the best case scenario. As we cycled throughout southern India, our greatest challenge day in and day out was procuring a cold one at the end of the day. Without exception, not a single one of our hotels served beer. That meant buying it elsewhere, which typically involved having our driver Jamal go on a beer run. (Where he got it, we don’t know, and how much money he skimmed off he top, we don’t really care.) Having at last scored some warm beer, all we needed was a fridge to chill it and a place to drink it. Easy enough, right? Once again, our hotels, which lacked a basic liquor license, offered little more than a helpless head shake. We couldn’t drink in their common areas, or bring them with us to dinner, or even refrigerate them. Banished from decent society, we took turns hosting each other in our rooms. (Jamal saved the day yet again, allowing us to use the cooler in his van to cool our contraband.)

This isn’t to say there were no bars in southern India and we never gave up our search — leading to mixed results. Which brings us to Kodaikanal, an old British hill station perched at 7,000 feet, high atop the Western Ghats. It was the site of our first rest day from the bikes and, sadly, proved to be one of the driest places along our route. We got wind that there was a bar at a nearby hotel so after dinner a few of us ventured out for a nightcap.

Little did we know we were walking into the single worst bar any of us had ever come across.

Located in the hotel’s ill-lit basement, it was filthy and reeked of urine. The beer sat warm atop the bar. When we asked for cold beer, the bartender brought us some very mildly chilled Carlsbergs. The glasses were dirty, but when someone pointed this out, the bartender proceeded to go back and wash them in suspect water with a dinghy old rag. No thank you, we’ll take our chances drinking straight out of the bottle — after we’ve wiped it with our sleeve! (When Warren arrived shortly after us, he took one whiff and promptly closed the door to the loo. Sigh. If only it was that easy.)

But whatever — the company was great and the experience a memorable one, so we soaked up the, umm, ambience, staying until the bar was about to close and we were asked to leave. As we prepared to stumble back to our hotel, we spotted a sign high above the bar that read “DRINKING LIQUOR WILL RUIN THE FAMILY.” Indeed it will.

So there you have it. From now on, when I say “I’ve been kicked out of worse places than this,” you’ll know I’m serious!!

Photo by John Layton

Postcards from Yangon

I didn’t get to spend as much time in Yangon as I would have liked. (A snafu with an internal flight — not at all uncommon in Burma — cut our time in the former capital short.) But I loved what I saw of this once great city that still conjures up nostalgic notions of a bygone colonial era, and which is simultaneously decaying and thriving again. The city center is a mix of British colonial and Burmese architecture. Power and phone lines criss cross narrow streets laid out in a perfect grid radiating from Sule Paya, a 2,500-year-old pagoda perched in the middle of the city’s busiest traffic circle (it’s a rather jarring paradox). Of course the undisputed highlight of the city is Schwedagon Paya… more on that another day!

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Early morning over Yangon

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Dusk at Shwedagon Paya

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Looking south toward the Yangon River

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Central Yangon approaching Sule Paya

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Colonial architecture

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The decay

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A typical street in central Yangon

Burma

Burma hit that sweet spot.

To appreciate why, it’s important to understand what led me there in the first place. The decision was about as spontaneous as any I’ve ever had — borne out of my two prior trips to the region (Thailand in 2008 and Vietnam a year ago). I had come away mesmerized by the way of life in southeast Asia and by its beautiful people. Yet as eye-opening as those trips were, I couldn’t quite shake the notion that I was a little late to the party.

Southeast Asia had always evoked in me romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era. But Vietnam and Thailand are modernizing rapidly, and while villages and rice paddies still dot the countryside, they aren’t the quintessential Indochinese experiences they were just 20 years ago. I still wanted to see a nation untouched, unspoiled, as close as possible to the state in which it had existed for decades and maybe even centuries. 

Burma offered me that opportunity. Considered until very recently the second most closed society in the world, the military junta that ruled this nation with an iron first had only dissolved itself in March of 2011. Visitors that year numbered a scant 800,000. (By comparison, nearly 20 million people visited neighboring Thailand that year. Another six million traveled to Vietnam.)

I felt that if I waited even a few years, Burma would be just another Asian nation I got to too late. So I packed my bags and hopped a plane to Yangon.

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From the moment you set foot in Burma, you are stepping back in time. Sadly, the country has made scarce strides in the past half century. Yangon is a colonial city thriving, yet simultaneously in a state of physical decay. Up north in Shan State, ox-driven carts rule the road, and the motor vehicles reminded me of the jalopies from a Steinbeck novel. Everything is still done by hand, from field work to road work and everything in between. (When we came across new road construction, what we saw were upwards of 50 people — men and women alike — crushing stone and laying pavement. Machinery was virtually nonexistent.)

What made Burma even more special was its people. It’s not simply that they were amongst the kindest and friendliest I’d ever encountered, though that alone would have likely been enough. It’s that they went out of their way to welcome us. These are people who, with few exceptions, hadn’t encountered foreigners during their lifetimes. We felt like ambassadors… and so did they. They were incredibly proud of their nation and were pleased to see it finally reopening itself to the world. Our job, it oftentimes felt, was to embrace them and let them know the world hadn’t forgotten them. “Welcome back, Burma.” “Glad to be back, world.”

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There were sad moments, too. Nothing broke my heart more than stopping at a roadside tea house and being served by the owner’s 8-year-old daughter. Everywhere we went, we saw too many kids who should have been in school but weren’t. (Unfortunately primary education isn’t free and, in a country with an average wage of just a dollar a day, is out of reach for many poor people.) There were the riverside slums in Mandalay, about which I wrote last month. There was corruption and vast cronyism, which is keeping most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a few elites and stifling the entrepreneurial spirit needed for real, sustained growth.

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Of course I haven’t even mentioned the intense beauty of Burma. The pagodas, from the shimmering, golden Shwedagon Paya in Yangon to the thousands of temples that dot the dusty plain of Bagan. Inle Lake and its floating villages. Mount Popa and U Bein Bridge.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, take one glance at sunrise over Bagan… and pack your bags.

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Water World

Last year, as the Reunification Express slowly chugged past the endless rice paddies that dot Vietnam’s central coast, I recall contemplating about the importance of water to that country. This, of course, barely registered as a noteworthy revelation — water is essential to developing and wealthy nations alike (or so my friends in California insist). Then I got to Burma, a nation that lacks so many modern conveniences that running water is still a luxury outside the major cities.

As we rode through Burma, we saw people washing, well, everything. In rivers and streams, lakes and ponds. Their food, their clothes, themselves — even their scooters!

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Share the road… Burmese style

“Traffic” in Burma was unlike anything I’d previously experienced, a seemingly endless stream of ox-driven carts, jalopies, tractors, and a sort of motorcycle/bus hybrid usually teeming with people. The pictures here speak for themselves. I hope the smiles and waves from the beautiful Burmese people warm your heart as much as they do mine!

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Mandalay

Burma is a poor country.

That was evident everywhere we went. A half century of totalitarian rule by a military junta had left the Burmese economy lagging far behind its regional neighbors. And while the country is embracing democracy and opening its borders, its economy remains stifled by a network of cronies who control most of the nation’s wealth. It’s hard to grow your way to prosperity when you exclude most of your countrymen.

As we cycled through the countryside, we saw rudimentary homes (huts, really) with few of the modern conveniences that are becoming commonplace in other parts of southeast Asia. Setting foot in much of Burma is like stepping back in time: many people still live largely as the generations before them once did. Yet whereas rural poverty carries with it certain romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era, there is no beauty in urban poverty. And so we rode into Mandalay…

On my first morning in Burma’s second largest city and former capital, I left our comfortable riverside hotel early in the morning and decided to walk down the banks of the fabled Irrawaddy River. What I saw shocked the senses. The narrow patch of dirt separating the river from the road was teeming with people living in rudimentary shacks, with no electricity or running water, and no sign of a toilet. (I watched two kids defecate under a truck.) Tiny rooms housed large families, occasionally with pigs living underneath. And everywhere there were children, always smiling, completely oblivious to their surroundings.

If there was any consolation to what we saw — an ironic silver lining — it’s that Mother Nature will see to it that these living conditions are only temporary. When the rainy season comes, the rising Irrawaddy will flood the ghetto and wash everything away, scattering the people and leaving no sign anyone had ever lived there. Of course next year the dry season will arrive, bringing with it new people, new problems, and the cycle will repeat.

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I loved Inle Lake. You should hate it.

Nearly a week since returning from Burma, I’m still sifting through the trip — the photos and memories of the people we met, the places we saw. We’ll get to the overall trip another time — today I want to tell you about my favorite place in Burma… one I hope I can convince you to never visit.

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Inle Lake is a freshwater lake nestled in the mountains of Shan State east of Mandalay. Despite its size, at first glance, it’s easy to miss. So much of it is covered — by homes, people, farmland — the only way to see much of it is by being on it. And so we set out on our long boats…

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There are nearly 100,000 people living in approximately 50 villages not just surrounding the lake, but on it as well. The result is a kind of Burmese Venice. Waterways make streets, with intersections and even speed bumps in the form of bamboo rods laid across the water (the rods force boats to lift their propellers out of the water — clever!).

Cruising the lake is pure pleasure and I could easily have devoted another day or two to seeking out its remote pockets. Like so much else about this country, Inle Lake offered a glimpse into a way of life largely unaltered over generations. Thatch huts stood on stilts, villagers transported goods via canoes, and farmers tended to crops growing on floating islands of soil. Women weaved lotus and silk, while men pounded silver and other metals.

And then there was the lake’s most iconic imagine — that of the loan fisherman balancing himself on the back of a canoe, a single oar held by a foot, rowing with a graceful, twisting motion.

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Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realize life on Inle is rapidly changing as the country modernizes and the lake becomes one of Burma’s premier tourist attractions. Tourism, while still relatively light, is nevertheless growing, with new hotels cropping up along the shoreline and even on the lake itself. As you leave a pagoda, a canoe pulls up alongside you and a villager tries to sell you a necklace or a postcard. Can you blame them? Why spend a grueling day farming and fishing when you can earn more selling trinkets?

The lake is also suffering from a myriad of environmental woes, only some of which can be attributed to tourism. The challenges are well described in this article that points the finger at just about everyone: logging, pesticide, coal mining, tourism, you name it. The result is a shrinking lake and changes to life as its floating inhabitants know it.

Go see Inle Lake before it disappears. Or maybe don’t.

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