Monday, February 22, 2016

On The Irrawaddy. Mandalay to Bagan.


The original itinerary for this trip had us flying from Mandalay to Bagan to save time.  But I was not about to save time if I could experience a boat ride down the Irrawaddy River.  Of course, I had no idea what that would entail so I decided I better do some research in to boating on the Irrawaddy.

Well, wouldn't you know it.  I came across several articles with wonderful descriptions about taking in a beautiful section of the Irrawaddy River, seeing so much of the countryside and bustling river activities as you moved along the river.  Several write ups even described fascinating stops at riverside villages, where you would get to see village life and have the opportunity to buy fresh local produce.  That was enough to hook me in.  So I signed all three of us up for the 9+ hours long river journey to Bagan.  They can fly any time but this could turn out to be their once in a lifetime experience of traveling by boat on the Irrawaddy River.

And so it was with fervid excitement that I woke up bright and early this morning.  Even the prospect of having to wake up early enough to have breakfast and be at the boat dock by 7a was not enough to dampen my spirits.

Zaw was at the hotel on time and we all loaded up for the short drive to the boat dock.  This was not the same dock as where we had come to yesterday.  This was the Gaw Wein Jetty, a very historic dock though most foreigners would not have a clue looking at the place.  It was pretty much just a set of steps leading down to a covered platform which connected the jetty to our awaiting boat.


We said goodbye to Aung at the van and then followed Zaw down the steps.  There, we bid him farewell.  We didn't spend much time with the two of them but they were awfully nice to us. 


We boarded the boat and immediately got swept up into a small horde of tourists.  Our first mandatory stop was at the luggage area where were deposited our suitcases and in return were suppose to get a luggage tag but for some reason, I walked away without one.


Next, we went off in search of a place to plop ourselves down for the duration of the trip.  The upper deck, which had some chairs set out under the open sky, was already filled.  On the lower level, there were two air conditioned cabins.  The Wilted Lily made a bee line for the one in the back of the boat but she was convinced to move up to the front cabin by the other two - there was a promise of a better view of the scenery from the front of the boat.  Made sense so I gathered up my stuff and headed to the front.

We settled in for the long ride ahead of us.




The sun was just beginning to rise as we began our trip down the river.




As we got underway, we all stood outside to take in the view.


We passed two guys who had obviously spent the night atop a float of logs.  It's not easy making a living in this country.



There was a small boat anchored near by and I wondered if it was what the two men used to pull the raft of logs down river.


We most certainly were not the only *cruise* boat on the river.  The one thing that all the boats seemed to have in common was the black smoke that sputtered out of their engines.   Another reminder that going by boat is not always the most environmentally friendly way to go :-(


Somehow, I had it in my head that we would be boating down a river that cut through a rain forest.  After all, Myanmar is geographically located in a part of the world that is forested but no.  Here, the land is flat and arid.  Yesterday's boat ride to Mingun was what opened my eyes to this revelation. 


Log rafts were indeed a common sight and so were tents atop the log rafts.


On one of the rafts, I spotted a toddler.  On this raft, it wasn't just two guys who had spent the night, it was an entire family.  Not only had they slept here, under a makeshift tent, but they were getting ready to have their breakfast here as well.


She may not have much but she does have a beautiful smile!



By the time we reached Sagaing, it was the full light of day.  You can't miss the sight of this place - there's a pagoda in just about every spot that you can build one in :-)





After Sagaing Hill, came two of Myanmar's most famous bridges - the Yadanabon Bridge in the foreground and the Ava Bridge in the far distance.


Sitting downstairs in the front cabin, we didn't realize that breakfast was being served until one of us noticed someone carrying a plate of food.  By the time we made it upstairs, most everyone around us was eating and there were only a few people left standing in line.  I just hoped they would not run out of food before I got to the head of the line....not that what people had on their plates was anything that I was going to be upset missing out on.


At the head of the line was a woman standing behind two toasters.  She was endlessly making toast.  Next to the toasters was a small pot that held freshly boiled eggs.


A young girl behind the bar was serving up cups of tea or coffee.  My breakfast was a simple meal of two slices of toast, spread with jam and butter, a hard boiled egg and a cup of tea.


By the time breakfast was over, we had already been on the boat for more than an hour -it was barely 8:30 in the morning.  We had not made a stop yet.   There was not  much else to do but stand by the rail and watch the world of Myanmar village and river life pass us by.



Seeing village woman doing laundry is a common sight.  In some places, clean clothes are hung up on lines to dry.  In other places, they are just laid out on the ground.



Farmers have to get water from the river to irrigate their fields.  We saw several ingenious methods for accomplishing this though most involved a mechanized way to simply pump the water up from the river to the field.


We often passed by what I would describe as a flotilla of fishing boats.  They were all linked together somehow.


Usually, fishermen work along - trolling spots that regularly bring them catches.   So I was surprised to see the chain of boats.  Zooming in, (photo not all that great), you can make out a few makeshift tents and other items that would indicate that the men essentially live on the boats.


Why move the pots by truck if you can just pile them up on the boat and move them up river?


Some very friendly boys. It you wave, chances you will get a wave back.  Simple way to just connect with a local.

The family *car*.

Between watching the activities on shore and on the water, we also interacted with fellow tourists including Tom who is from the UK.  He and his wife came to Myanmar after visiting their son who is living and working in Bangkok.


With each passing hour, I was wondering when we would stop so we could have a village break.   My expectations of the boating experience as described on many a website were slowly being shattered.


But as the day went on the river widened until the banks were so far apart there was nothing to see but their dim shape in the distance. There was little in the way of river traffic and, aside from the occasional village or cow, there was little to look at for the bulk of the trip.

At one point, there was a bit of commotion taking place on the level below us.   Standing on one side of the boat was a man, holding a long pole, with colored sections.  He would occasionally dip the pole into the water.  I figured the pole was a depth gauge of sorts.  We are traveling in dry season which means the level of the river can be shallow in sections.   He and the rest of the crew need to make sure we are in deep enough waters so we don't get stuck on a sand bar.



After a few minutes of watching the action from above, I headed down below to see the action up close.  We are obviously not on a ship equipped with electronic depth measurement tools.  It's all manual here and as simple as the tools and methods are, they work!


As with breakfast, we nearly missed lunch which was a simple offering of either rice or noodles fried with a few snips of veggies.  Truly nothing fancy.  Thankfully, none of us were hungry.


While the rear cabin seemed to remain air conditioned throughout the trip, the front cabin lost its cold air shortly after we got underway.  Too many people leaving the doors open.  It was hot and humid day and the only way to even get remotely comfortable was to stand in the doorway, preferably out of the sun.    There, you could catch the warm breeze blowing off the water. 


At one point, I was able to grab a plastic chair and I found a shady spot near the bow of the boat.  There, I sat for as long as I could.  It seemed like most of the passengers were hanging out in the back sections of the boat so there were only a few of us passengers in the front.  It was nice.

The seats were comfy but it was far too hot to sit inside the cabin....unless you wanted to nap.

He found the cool, shady spot on the boat. 

By midday, we had long reached the section of the river that was so far apart that there was nothing to see.  You could just make out the strips of sandy land that flanked the river's shoreline. There was little in the way of river traffic and, aside from the occasional encampment or small herd of cattle, there was little to look at for the bulk of the trip.


In my imagination, this would be a view I would see if I was sailing somewhere in the Middle East not in South Asia.


Even in this desolate environment, people have set up their homes.   Perhaps they are migrant workers or nomads as I cannot imagine this being a permanent living location for anyone but then again, you never know.  People are truly resilient - they survive wherever and however they can.


We never made a single stop on our entire boat journey.  We each passed the time in own ways.  I did a lot of wandering about the ship though once the heat of day hit, I was confined to the cabin and shady spots on the lower deck.

The telltale outlines of Burmese pagodas and the sight of the early evening sun were my clues that we were arriving in to Bagan.   There was no announcement over a PA system about the arrival but really there was no need.  Passengers, including us, started gathering up our possessions in preparation for arrival.  We all made our way to the luggage area to reclaim our bags.



It was nearly 6:30p when we finally arrived into Nuang U, the port of Bagan.



Our boat captain carefully maneuvered the boat to slip alongside another boat - deckhands were at the ready to pull the boat in and to secure to the dock.  Sorry for the blurry video.



Now that our boat trip is over, I can truthfully say for the record, that we never once stopped along the way.  I suspect that this would only be possible it you took the 2 day journey from Mandalay to Bagan or vice versa.  Otherwise, if you travel in dry season as we did, be prepared for the 9 hour journey that takes 11.  Bring along plenty of water, snacks and reading materials.

It had been a long and often very boring 11 hour journey for us.  I was happy we made it in one piece and could not wait to get off our boat and the one that we connected to.  Nyaung U lacks a formal pier and we disembarked onto ground via a few wooden planks.  On the other side of the plank was a dirt hill.  As we made our way up, I kept my eyes out for a sign with my name on it.  Instead, I saw a sign with my brother's name on it.  No matter!  We had found our guide and he had found us!  He introduced himself as Miu and we happily following him to our awaiting van where our driver - Win was there to greet us and to help us load our suitcases into the back.

From the dock area, we drove a short distance to our hotel - the Bagan Thande.  Opened in 1922 for King Edward VIII, it is Bagan's oldest hotel.  Thankfully, it has been renovated several times since then.  Miu helped us get checked in and before leaving us, we agreed on a meeting time for tomorrow.

We have a room in a small bungalow overlooking the patio dining area.  It's quite nice - we have a snippet of a view of the river.  After settling in, it was just about time for dinner.

The restaurant's menu was a mix of traditional Burmese food and European fare.   We were still early enough in our visit that traditional food was what we wanted.

We ate under the stars.....and a few small candles.  The waitress handed us the flashlight so we could read the menu :-)

To one side of the patio, there was a small stage where a puppet performance was held.  Most certainly puppets are not everyone's cup of tea but I enjoy them so after eating, I moved over to watch a bit of the show.


After dinner, it was time to just relax.  Considering I had done absolutely nothing all day but sit and walk around the deck of a boat, I was tired.  I think it's the heat - it just saps the energy out of you.  In any case, we are meeting back up with Miu tomorrow morning at 9a.  I have seen so many incredible images of Bagan that I am so thrilled to finally be here and experience this spiritual place in person.  I cannot wait to get going.  In the meantime, I have to shower and sleep so time to sign off.

Goodnight from Bagan!