Well, Christmas is upon us. We have lights twinkling in the huge olive tree in our back yard and all the presents are wrapped and ready to go, and it got me thinking (well, wistfully reminiscing, to be honest) about the last time I was away for Christmas. In 2010, I happened to be riding a bike around Myanmar with this wonderful mob. I know, right. Like that’s a completely normal thing to be doing! In fact, it was an amazing adventure (and one I’ll write about in more detail soon).
Christmas Eve saw us ride up to Mount Popa, a stunning mountain top destination. We stopped in at the Nat shrine (surprisingly, not a shrine to me, which came as a bit of a disappointment) where there was a rather extraordinary ritual going on. It involved a lot of banging on drums and a transvestite performer who danced and sang and threw lollies out to the waiting crowd. It was hypnotic, if a little chaotic, but we figured it couldn’t hurt to appease the Nat spirits, who are apparently a mischievous little bunch. I figured the Nat who received offerings of alcohol was some sort of kindred spirit.
Back at Mount Popa resort, we swam in the pool that overlooked the valley beneath and the mountain top temple in the distance. That night, the hotel threw a Christmas eve party for its guests, complete with turkey and plum pudding. In the middle of Burma. Of course, no Christmas party is over until Santa arrives. And ours came on horseback. An actual horse (it had to walk down the stairs and everything) carried a Burmese gift-bearing Santa into the shindig. It was thoroughly delightful.
Christmas morning dawned and we set off on the next leg of our cycling journey. A long sweeping downhill ride took us to a small village where we stopped for tea and watched a pig saunter across the road.
We then headed onwards to our destination – a town called Meiktila.
Now, may I suggest that if you ever happen to find yourself in Burma at Christmas time, you don’t plan to spend Christmas night in Meiktila. It’s a staggeringly unremarkable town, and the “hotel” we were staying in was more reminiscent of a prison facility. Our room had no windows, no hot water and a rather startling mould growth in the bathroom. We were lucky. Others in our group were in complete darkness. At least we had a flickering fluoro so we could see the mould. Apparently, accommodation choices (for foreigners, that is) are not extensive in this part of the world, and we were really only there because it was a stopping off point on our way to Kalaw (yep, we spent Boxing Day with a 90km ride on terrible roads before lunch, then a 25km unrelenting uphill ride after lunch. (I’m lying. I sat on the bus for the entire uphill section. I’m not an idiot)).
Christmas dinner was spent at a fairly humble little restaurant, and we went to bed early ahead of a pre-dawn start the next morning. And Christmas was over.
It’s only fair to point out that Spice Roads have since changed the itinerary for this particular tour, so that you no longer have to go to Meiktila and you no longer have to ride 25km up a bloody big hill. Both are considerable improvements.
And while my Burmese Christmas may not have been the most Christmassy of all time (well, we were in a predominantly Buddhist country after all), it remains a particularly memorable one. Burma is a very special place.