Passing pariah dogs and monks waiting to be fed after morning prayer we boarded the Malikha River Cruise at Nyaung-U, the jetty for access to Bagan. Nyaung-U; well seemingly it is worth visiting for its buzzing market and workshops manufacturing hand-woven cloth and local cigars. From here you can reach Mount Victoria, which, at more than 3,000 metres (10,000ft), is the highest peak of the Rakhaing Yoma. Perhaps a nod to Gecko’s to include this for the Bagan visit in the future
The Malikha 2 was a gentle beast of faded elegance and our home for the next 14 or so hours. Breakfast from the hotel consisted of day old toast and Netto jam but was rescued by boiled eggs and bananas. The boat launched on time and we drifted from our moorings as the full moon cast a flickering light across our bows. Many of our entourage fell asleep but I wanted to see the sun rising over Bagan. Sadly this was not to be as the ferry increased speed and left Bagan far behind and was sucked on by the Irrawaddy currents. Disappointment was short lived as a fiery furnace of sky engulfed us and allowed me to cement a portfolio of striking shots.
I settled back on the sun terrace ignoring the morning chill that nipped the toes despite the glorious sky. I reminded myself of Kipling’s poem and lifted it on the iPad.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…
Our journey of course was not Rangoon (Yangon) to Mandalay as we completed the epic train journey a few days before. I’d promised myself to hit the novels again but each time I opened the e-reader something caught my eye so almost immediately as I made the resolution it was quashed!
Passing loggers, fishermen and a cornucopia of river dwellers and users the first settlement we pass is Thein Gone, unfortunately we don’t stop as our journey is of the A-B variety, a cruise rather than an adventure. In saying that my pre-written trip notes were good prompts for viewing the river life as we headed to Mandalay.
Thein Gone a rural village with one hundred and twenty five households. The village was established just 50 years ago on the fertile river plain close to the great river. Everyone in the village is a farmer and the main crops are corn, peanuts, tobacco and small areas of paddy. Guava trees abound and are planted round the simple wood and thatch houses. There is no government healthcare or economic support yet my research tells me that the people are grafters and in good health. There is virtually no crime and doors, where there are doors, do not have locks. It used to be like that up north! Lancashire that is!
Thein Gone has a Buddhist monastery with 5 monks and over 25 monastery boys, borders come from the outlying areas receiving free education and care from the monks. In addition there is a state-run village school with 4 teachers, but they commute from nearby Pakokku. Future job opportunity?
Cruising past Myingyan on the right during the dry season, one can feel the dust and heat that bakes this part of the country where rain is scarce. Myingyan is a town of around 80,000 people is a port and an important cotton-trading centre, at the head of a branch railway to Thazi and the main line between Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay. Myingyan has a cotton ginning and spinning mill. After a tremendous stir fried lunch served on deck we settled into our relaxing adventure along Burma’s main waterway.
Once the boat has turned north again, the heartland of the Bamar people lies to the right. This land south of Mandalay, which has benefitted from the irrigation of more than 2,000 years, was the breadbasket that fed the various Burmese kingdoms. Its surplus permitted the development of the advanced civilisation that started with the First Burmese Empire in the 11th century.
The boat travelled on to Yandabo, where the treaty that ceded Assam, Rakhaing and Tanintharyi to the British was signed in 1825. Yandabo, which can only be accessed by river, is well known for its terracotta pottery, which is made with the yellow mud collected from the riverbank. Further north near Nagar Pank is a shallow stretch along the confluence with the Chindwin and its many shifting sandbanks. If travelling on a local slow boat at low water, this is where the boat has the most chance of running aground. When this happens, it can take hours before the boat is ready to be refloated.
Between Sagaing and Inwa, the river flows for a short while towards the east before turning north again. Shortly after navigating this part of the river’s treacherous shoals, boats pass the confluence of the Mu River that drains from Sagaing province.
The Ava (Inwa) Bridge, which runs across the road and railway line to Myitkyina, was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1954. At present, this bridge and one at Pyay are the only bridges to cross the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) along its entire 2,170-km (1,350-mile) length. Before reaching the environs of Mandalay, this 36-km (20-mile) stretch of river passes through one of the most cultured places in the world. Modern civilisation has largely bypassed this region, its said that Myanmar’s spiritual wealth is felt in the kyaungs (temples) of the Sagaing valleys, which have been preserved and are sure to become a destination as the tourist industry grows. There’s an adventure/photographic travel business opportunity for any entrepreneur brave enough to invest in Myanmar at present.
Arriving in Mandalay is akin to using a tardis and jumping back to 1890 and Kipling’s Mandalay, where he arrived at the age of 24. Kipling wrote of the Burmese girls:
“I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.”
The boat landings were awash with life; boats under construction in steel or teak, boats being cleaned or deconstructed. Children played in and out of the water tagging each other under the hundreds of washing lines. Men washed in the river, women cleaned clothes alongside them, taxi drivers and rickshaws waited to claim some business maybe the first of the day. We disembarked and our local driver whisked us off to the Golden Country Hotel.
After showering we walked the 30 metres to the Ba Yin Ma Restaurant, which by default, had a monumental Chinese menu ably supported by local dishes and Thai cuisine. I ordered the full baked chicken, which came bashed up with head and feet still intact!