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Myanmar (Burma) November 2012

Cruising the Irrawaddy with Style

Introduction:

Coming back from my first trip to Myanmar last year, I raved so much about it that my mother spontaneously decided to visit as well. She booked on the RV Pandaw, a beautiful wooden boat plying the Ayeyarwady River. Luckily for me, she invited me to come along, the boat would normally be a little beyond my financial means. Lucky too that she booked that early as shortly afterwards the demand for Myanmar exploded and everything got booked solid within a short time.

Costs:

I cannot really say much about that. The trip was paid for by my mom and the cruise included food, beer, and excursions. There was the odd camera fee to pay, plus tips for guides and drivers, but these were all negligent sums.

Accommodation and food:

We spent almost the entire trip on the "Pandaw II". The cabins are comfortable enough, especially as I did not share my cabin. The cabins, and the boat, are predominantly made out of wood, something I really like.

The Pandaw II

In Yangon we stayed at the Chatrium Hotel, for me arguably one of the best hotels in town. It might not have all that much charm but rooms are very comfortable, service is excellent, and the breakfast is very decent. I would certainly recommend the hotel.

In Mandalay we passed a couple of nights at the Hotel Shwe Pyi Thar. The hotel has only been open for 4 months and as butt-ugly from the outside. The architecture is best described as a mix of Chinese, Myanmar, and the nightmares of someone on an acid trip. However, the rooms were very comfortable and the staff extremely helpful. But so they should be at USD 195.00 a night.

The last night before leaving I stayed at the Hotel 7 Mile. I was not sure what to expect at "only" USD 88.00 a night (which would have been a lot of money for accommodation a year ago but, alas, no more). The room turned out to be huge, breakfast was OK, and once again the staff were lovely (though it took forever to get the bill sorted (which had one beer on it).

The food, oh the food. I would content that Myanmar is not a culinary highlight, especially compared to its South-East Asian neighbors. I had great Chinese, Indian, and Shan food but must honestly say that a lot of the Myanmar food left me underwhelmed. I am not keen on oil and Myanmar food is swimming in it. The one thing I really did like were the soups for breakfast, but the curries were pretty forgettable. I am also no big fan of the fermented tea leaves and I dare say that I would not go back to Myanmar for the food. For the people, the landscape, and pretty much everything else, yes. But certainly not the food.

Climate:

We started off our trip with incredible heat; the thermometer hit 41 degrees the first day on Plenty of spectacular sunrises during our trip.board. Luckily, temperatures steadily dropped over the next few days; to as low as 17 degrees one morning. Quite cold, especially when the ship was moving. We did have a couple of short showers (drizzle really) and some more extensive rain in Mandalay. However, mostly it was sunshine all around and really pleasant.

Dangers and annoyances:

I cannot really say much, being on the boat and all. The only real annoyance were the souvenir sellers in places like Bagan and Mandalay. Yes, I know they are trying to make a living; I am just worried that they are heading the same way like in Vietnam: mostly kids (thus no school), aggressive, and unaware of the word "no". I actually hardly got hustled; guess I have been in these parts long enough to have acquired that "leave-me-effing-alone" aura, but many of my fellow passengers sure got pounced on.

The other annoyance was the garbage everywhere. Some of the villages were outright filthy wit rubbish, plastic bags in particular, everywhere. This is a recent development, the government used to force people to clean up but they cannot do this anymore for fear of upsetting some do-gooders human rights group.

Books:

My parents had the latest Lonely Planet. Published on the 1st of January 2012, the book is already woefully out of date as far as prices go; but then changes in Myanmar are just head-spinning fast.

Pictures:

Hovering over some of the pictures will give names or descriptions. More pictures are here: Myanmar 2012.

Special note of thanks, and disclaimer:

Obviously I got to thank my parents. Not only for sharing the time, the beer (or wine), the company, but also because they paid for the trip. Not worthy........

We had an excellent guide, Mr. Kyaw Soe Latt. Funny, smart, and extremely knowledgeable; he certainly made our Myanmar trip so much more enjoyable. Remember that beer in Yangon next time.....

Mr. Ko Win Hlain, Chief Purser on the Pandaw proved to be invaluable. From getting Strepsils for my mum to making sure we did not run out of beer, he was the man to go to. Great stuff.

The captain and the Crew of the Pandaw; some of the hardest-working people I have seen.

And of course all the people that made our trip so pleasant with their genuine friendliness and charm.

As usual, all mistakes are mine and mine alone, and any feedback is welcome at hannostamm(at)hotmail.com.

Introduction:

 Coming back from my first trip to Myanmar last year, I raved so much about it that my mother spontaneously decided to visit as well. She booked on the RV Pandaw, a beautiful wooden boat plying the Ayeyarwady River. Luckily for me, she invited me to come along, the boat would normally be a little beyond my financial means. Lucky too that she booked that early as shortly afterwards the demand for Myanmar exploded and everything got booked solid within a short time.

 31st of October:

 An uneventful flight via Bangkok saw me arrive in Yangon at around 17:30. Getting through immigration and customs was a breeze and a representative of the Pandaw was waiting for me outside arrivals. Half an hour later I met my parents at the Chatrium Hotel. I have stayed here before and consider it to be one of the better hotels in Yangon. Nevertheless, we decided to head across the road and have dinner at the Bangkok Kitchen. As on my previous visits, the food was excellent, the Myanmar Beer was cold, and it was good to see my parents again.

1st of November: Prome (Pyay) – Palot 45 km

 An early start today, as we had to cover 300 kilometers to go to Prome (Pyay). As usual, the breakfast at the Chatrium was very good, even at 5 in the morning. Getting the buses loaded took a little longer than planned and we did not set off until 6:30. There were two buses and we ended up with a Swiss tour group. Nice folks all of them, but Swiss German is not exactly a romantic language… Somewhere in the program it was mentioned that the journey would take 5 hours, but it turned out to be more like 7 hours. Thus, it was 13:30 before we set eyes on our home for the next 2 weeks, the RV Pandaw II.

 Lunch was on board and the food was pretty good. Suitably fed, we set off to visit the archaeological site of Thiri-ya-kittiya, the former center of the Pyu civilization. I am not much of a museum fan, though some of the exhibits were nice, and instead tried to get some birding in. On the way back, we stopped at the Shwe San Daw Pagoda with great views over the Ayeyarwady River and Pyay.

Cabin on the Pandaw

 Back on board, most people headed for dinner whilst I opted for the upper deck and a few cold Myanmar beers. The Pandaw cast of and stopped a little later for the night in the middle of nowhere. Early night for me in a very comfortable cabin. Contrary to what I had assumed, I did not share the cabin with anyone (thank you mom), meaning I had plenty of space for myself. The bunk turned out to be very comfortable and I slept like a baby.

The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy River:

 At 2,170 kilometers, this is Myanmar’s largest river. It starts in the Kachin state and is navigable for about 1,600 kilometers from the Andaman Sea to Myitkyina. The river is absolutely massive but also very shallow in many places; on more than once occasion we saw barges that got stuck on a sandbank.

The Ayeyarwady River starts in Kachin State, bisects the country from North to South, and empties through a nine-armed delta into the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean. In colonial times, before the advent of cars and railways, the river was the most important commercial waterway (and still is); it was during those times that the Ayeyarwady got its moniker of “Road to Mandalay”.

 Until 1998 there was only a single bridge that spanned the Ayeyarwady, the Inwa (Ava) Bridge built in 1934 near Sagaing. This is changing fast though, we saw numerous bridges being built.

2nd of November: Palot – Thayet Myo – Lat Pan 79 km

 The Pandaw cast off from Palot on the dot at 06:00. A beautiful morning with a great mug of coffee (and a hangover) on the sun deck. Breakfast was fantastic, with a good Myanmar noodle soup.

Around 09:00 we reached Thayet Myo, and old colonial town that once guarded the border between Royal and British Burma following the 2nd Anglo-Burmese war in 1852. The idea was to visit the Ralf not looking too comfortabletown by horse cart, but one look at the puny ponies and I decided to foot it instead. Like everywhere we went, the people were extremely friendly and always sported a ready smile. I think it is this genuine amiability that makes me like Myanmar so much. We visited the market and my mother promptly ended up with Thanaka on her face. This is the Myanmar cosmetic paste applied by most women and many of the kids. After the market, the tour went on to Myanmar’s oldest golf course (built in 1887) but my parents and I decided to walk back to the Pandaw instead.

No excursion in the afternoon, which I did not mind as it was 41 degrees in the shade; the day would prove to be the hottest of the trip. Instead, the Chef gave a cooking class, preparing ginger and tealeaf salads. Most days, there would be some sort of presentation, ranging from how to tie the Longyi to preparing Thanaka paste to a movie on the early life of Buddha. Touristy? Probably. But also very interesting and I have no problem with doing the tourist thing.

Thanaka:

 Thanaka is the yellowish paste seen on the faces of most Myanma women and children. It is considered the beauty secret of Burmese women and has been used for over 2,000 years. It is made by grinding the bark of the Thanaka tree (Murraya paniculata) with a little water on a stone slab called kyauk pyin. The thanaka trees grow mostly in Central Myanmar and must be at least 35 years old before considered mature enough to yield high-quality thanaka. The paste is applied in a wide variety of patterns; often in round patches but also squares, leaf-shaped or in stripes.

 

We once again stopped for the night in the middle of nowhere, not far from Lat Pan, having covered about 80 km that day. Before heading for dinner, the Pandaw crew presented itself. I cannot speak highly enough of the crew: apart from being friendly, they also worked very hard and everything was organized like clockwork. Ultra efficient and at the same time unobtrusive, a couple of them I’d hire on the spot. Also absolutely excellent were our guide, Mr. Soe, and the ship’s manager, Mr. Win. If they ever got tired of us tourists asking inane questions, they certainly did not let on.

 I once again skipped dinner and instead made sure that the Myanmar beers had the right temperature.

3rd of November: Lat Pan – Min Hla – Magwe 60.8 km

 Morning routine has been established: out of bed at 05:00 and off to the sun deck for a coffee and watching the sunrise before heading for brekkie. An excellent Burmese soup was on offer, though the strong smell of fish paste seemed to put most people off. As usual the Pandaw set off at 06:00 to cover the 30 kilometers to Min Hla. Here, we were supposed to visit two forts, Gwe Chaung and Min Hla Forts, on either side of the river, one built by the French and the other by the Italians to keep the Poms at bay. Amazingly enough, the Italian fort was still standing; they Italians obviously did a better job at construction then than they do today. Didn’t do them any good, both forts were captured by the Brits during the 3rd Anglo-Burmese war in 1885. I did not climb up to the first fort as I wanted to get some birding in. Turned out to be pretty good, with both Red-vented Bulbul and Hooded Treepie as “lifers” for me.

 After the forts, we got under way again to cover another 30 kilometers to Magwe, having lunch on board. The Lonely Planet does not have anything good to say about Magwe, but I quite liked the town. The city tour was by Trishaw, or sidecar in Burmese, but I felt sorry for my driver and decided to walk instead. I managed to find the Myat-thalon Pagoda on my own, apparently this Pagoda is built of solid gold bricks. Not sure if it is true, the guard had some objections to me yanking one of the bricks out. There was a massive market going on at the foot of the Pagoda. This is apparently an annual event and it was heaving with people. In the old days, people bought and sold flowers, food, and other items of daily life; today most of the products were cheap Chinese plastic trinkets and toys as far as I could see. Plastic guns in particular seem to be very popular with Myanma kids.

 I also ducked into one of the Internet Cafes that are popping up anywhere. It worked, but only just; speeds were painfully slow.

 I walked back to the ship for a much-needed shower and a cold one. Dinner was good but the portions were generally on the small side. After dinner a pretty good BBC production, “The Life of Buddha” was shown. I had another beer with Ralf and it was off to bed.

"[Burma] ... has an atmosphere, a something undefined, which has appealed irresistibly to all who have fallen under its influence. The appeal lies no doubt in the happy gaiety of the people, the kindly tolerance of their customs... and their grace. A kindly indolence lingers amidst the fretful restlessness of our age... They are an attractive people, gay and humorous and often intellectual... little spoiled by the abominable spirit of our times."

CM Enriques, A Burmese Wonderland 1922

 

 4th of November: Magwe – Sale 98.8 km

 We spent the night in Magwe and once again took off at 06:00. An easy day today as we had to cover almost 100 kilometers to Sale and there would be no excursion in the morning. Also, the early hours were quite cool today. I guess I have been in SE Asia too long, but I found 24° actually quite chilly! Good thing there was a fairly spicy Burmese chicken curry for breakfast, that warmed me up a bit. Food so far has been generally quite good, as long as I always get my extra dose of chili, the Chef obviously needs to cater to a variety of tastes and has to go easy on the spices.

The banks are usually too far away to do any serious birding, but 5 Demoiselle Cranes and 7 Milky Storks were big enough to nail. Also impossible to miss were the numerous gigantic barges loaded with trees, all hardwood. Apparently the government will ban logging in early 2014 and the race is on to take out as many trees as possible until then.

Old British building in Sale

Just after lunch, we arrived in Sale. A nice little town that got rich on oil and has quite a few British Colonial buildings, though many are in disrepair. The Lonely Planet slags off this town as not really worth visiting, but I quite liked it. The big draw here is the Yout-Saun-Kyaung monastery; built entirely out of teak and with dozens of very intricate carvings. Opposite the monastery preparations were under way for a big feast as the head monk had recently passed.

There was a movie on Bagan on that night but we skipped it in favor of a few cold ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burma or Myanmar?

 The name Myanmar is a derivative from the name Myanma Naingngandaw. Used as early as the 12th century, the etymology remains unclear. It is also the official name of the citizens of Myanmar, written without the final “r” when used as an adjective (the Myanma people). In 1989, the military decided to change the English name from Burma to Myanmar .

 

 5th of November: Sale – Tan Kyi Taung – Bagan 47 km

 The day started off with a coffee and a very good rice noodle soup. I really do like the Burmese soups for breakfast, almost as good as Vietnamese Pho. Whilst slurping my soup, I saw 6 hot air balloons over Bagan, regrettably we were not able to do this as all the balloons were booked solid until December.

We got to Tan Kyi Taung around 9:00 and set off in a convoy of jeeps for a 20-minute drive to the hilltop Stupa. Absolutely stunning views over both Old and New Bagan, and a few good birds too; the highlight being a Daurian Redstart. Whilst the others drove back, I decided to tackle the 1,800-odd steps back down. A bit of a hot walk and I promptly got lost, much to the displeasure of the Captain. The moment I did find the boat, we crossed the river to Bagan. We straight away got a taste of things to come when the first hawkers arrived within seconds of the ship docking; the whole “lookie-lookie” and “buy-for-me” spiel is pretty intense here.

My parents and I had decided that we needed a break from traveling in a group and I had arranged for a private car to take us around. We started off our temple visit with the Ananda Phaya temple. This is one of the main draws in Bagan and is a must-see. The temple is home to 4 large teak Buddhas though only 2 are originals; the other two are replacements after a fire destroyed them in the 17th century. The Buddhas are certainly impressive, but the temple itself is also vey beautiful with its 60m-high gold-covered roof.

 Next stop was the Manuha Guphaya temple. Built by Mon King Manuha in 1059, it houses a Buddha 15 meters tall. To go with this huge Buddha there is an alms bowl that supposedly can hold 40 sacks of rice. There is also an impressive reclining Buddha a good 30 meters long depicting Buddha entering Nirvana.

After the obligatory stop in a lacquer factory (where my mom fell in love with a lacquer elephant; we would be back the next day to buy it), we headed for Gubyak Gyi. This temple has some very well preserved wall paintings but bring a torch, as it is pitch-black in there. Regrettably, photography is also not allowed in here to prevent damage to the paintings.

We drove on to the Dhammayan Gyi Temple. Built by King Narathu between 1163 and 1165, this is the largest temple in Bagan. The inner corridors are filled with rubble, though it is not clear if this was done because of structural problems or because people wanted to pay back King Narathu. He was apparently not a very nice man: he ordered that all bricks be so well placed that a needle could not pass between them; workers who failed to do so had their arms chopped off! Oh, he also killed his father, brother, and one of his wives. Only one of the vestibules is not blocked off; here there is a statue of the past and future Buddha side-by-side; the only site in Bagan with two side-by-side Buddhas.

Dhammayan Gyi Temple

 Our last stop for the day was at the Sulamani Guphaya. A huge brick structure, the temple looks like a pyramid from afar and is one of my favorite temples. The craftsmanship is excellent and there are also many well-preserved wall paintings.

 We headed back to the Pandaw after this though the driver wanted to take us to Shwesandaw Paya for the sunset. We figured there would be hordes of people there; one of our fellow passengers told us later that it was an absolute circus. Instead we watched dozens of extremely noisy boats heading downriver for the sunset; this proved to be a futile exercise as it was too cloudy.

 After dinner, there was a Myanmar puppet theater show. The puppeteers were pretty good, though the show was only a condensed version as these shows can apparently last 7 days. When speaking to Mr. Soe a couple of days later, he explained that many of the traditional skills are disappearing; no one wants to study these anymore as getting an MBA or a Computer Diploma is the way to riches. However, I do hope this thinking changes as more and more tourists stream in.

Temperatures were bearable at around 34° Celsius. It might seem a lot, but was nothing compared to my previous visit last April when temperatures were close to unsupportable. What were less bearable were the hordes of tourists and hawkers. On my first visit last year, I did not see a single tourist the whole day I was there, this time around there were thousands. Nothing against tourists, I am one myself, but my next visit will be during the low season again; I’d rather sweat and have the place to myself.

"Do not go by revelation or tradition, do not go by rumor, or the sacred scriptures, do not go by hearsay or mere logic, do not go by bias towards a notion or by another person's seeming ability and do not go by the idea 'He is our teacher'. But when you yourself know that a thing is good, that it is not blamable, that it is praised by the wise and when practiced and observed that it leads to happiness, then follow that thing."

Buddha's Teachings

 

 6th of November: Bagan – Ohn Ne Kyaung – Aung Pun Choung 68.8 km

 The soup this morning was an excellent Coconut-chicken soup with what looked like Spaghetti. I do not find Myanmar food very spicy compared to say Thai food, but there were always condiments at hand to liven the soups up a little

We had made arrangements with the driver to pick us up again and we headed straight for Shwesandaw Paya. A good thing we kept the temple for this morning, there were only two other visitors when we got there. The main draw of this temple are the fantastic 360-degree views from the top. Mind you, the climb is steep and not really suitable for anyone with a fear of heights; my parents only made it as far as the first terrace and my knees were shaking a little once on top.

Heck of a climb up Shwesandaw.

We finished the morning with a visit of Shwezigon Paya, a very attractive temple with a gilded zedi. Of particular importance here are the 37 Nats; spirit beings that pre-date Buddhism. They do need to clean the vitrine they are housed in though; the glass is almost blind. Once again, the place was heaving with both foreign and local visitors and there were gazillions of vendors flogging their junk. I understand that these folks are trying to make a living, but the constant hustling is a pain in the butt. Though they do tend to leave me alone, years of living in SE Asia have taught me to just ignore them.

Nats

 Pronounced like the chipmunk snack, Nats are the spirits worshipped in Myanmar since before Buddhism. King Anawratha initially wanted to do away with Nat worship but quickly realized that he would not get very far. He therefore designated an official pantheon of 37 nats, made up predominantly of those in the royal houses of Burmese history as well as nats of Thai and Shan descent. Thagyamin is considered King of the Nats and is identified with the Buddhist deva Sakra and the Hindu deity Indra. He is often portrayed atop a three-headed white elephant, holding a conch shell in one hand, and a yak-tail whisk in the other.

 Many houses contain a nat sin or nat ein, which serve as altars to nats. Village often have a patron nat and a coconut dressed in a red gaung baung (turban) surrounded by perfume representing Eindwin-Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain who is in the House).

Back on the boat I realized that I had not seen the battery charger for my camera. Turns out I had forgotten it back home; that is what happens when you pack half an hour before leaving for the airport. My mom had a Canon as well, but different size batteries (why can they not have standardized batteries). Another fellow passenger had a Canon with the right-size batteries but no charger. Not good but I was hoping to find a charger in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest town.

 We regrettably left Bagan at noon. The visit was too short really; I could easily spend a week here. We had lunch on board and reached Ohn Ne Kyaung at around 15:00. Not a very rich village but well kempt. The main crops here were peanuts and palm sugar, the village actually did not look much different from many villages in Cambodia. My fellow passengers are not a very adventurous lot; I was the only one that had s swig of sugar palm wine, insects and all. A performance by a lovely girl on some of the traditional instruments was quite amazing, I was particularly impressed by her mastery of the Pat Waing, a circle of 21 drums, each one tuned to a different tone. Mr. Soe told us that she had actually won a gold medal in the national competitions.

The rest of the afternoon was spent lazing around, drinking beer, and yakking away. We moored in the middle of nowhere and this was the only time that we had a lot of insects; the Purser had warned us about numerous insects at night, but it generally was not an issue.

The Pandaw Story

(with kind permission of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company)

 The original Pandaw was ordered in 1947 by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) as part of a fleet of ships intended to replace the fleet lost in the (2nd World) war. She was the same design as the original IFC steamers that coped so well with the difficult conditions of the Irrawaddy. Following the nationalization of the company after Independence in 1948, the Pandaw was handed over to the Inland Water Transport Board.

 Originally the Pandaw was a paddle steamer, 150 feet long with a beam of 34 feet. The paddle was placed in the stern to reduce draft. In fact the vessel only draws 3.5ft of water and can operate the rear round as far as Bhamo. The Pandaw was built in Glasgow by the firm of Yarrows who to this day build quality ships. She sailed out to Burma across the open sea. Archival photos show her steaming down the Clyde all boarded up for passage to Burma. With so shallow a draft this must have been a feat of navigation.

 The steam engines originally supplied by Denny of Dunbarton have been replaced by Dorman Hydromaster outboard engines. Up till 1997 the Pandaw still carried local cargo and passengers. It was then that we discovered her at the Mandalay docks and subsequently negotiated with the owners to take her over. Conserving many original features, we restored her to recreate the atmosphere and character of the first class deck of a colonial river steamer. We studied old photos and models of IFC ships and talked to a number of the company’s former employees. We were fortunate to undertake the refit in Burma, taking advantage of beautiful local hardwoods, such as teak, and excellent local craftsmanship. Refitted, the Pandaw was re-launched in September 1998 by the original builder Sir Eric Yarrow, who came all the way for the occasion from Scotland.

 The RV Pandaw quickly became popular. Demand for both charters and our scheduled services exceeded all expectations. For this reason we decided to introduce a second vessel into service for November 2001. Named Pandaw II (the vessel I was on), it is of the same P-class design as the original Pandaw only enlarged with 24 staterooms and being a new build we were able to improve on certain design aspects and the efficiency of the vessel. Pandaw III, launched in Yangon in October 2002, is of the same size as the Pandaw II but with additional accommodation in the Lower Deck, taking her up to 38 staterooms. Both new ships have identical staterooms to the much-loved original Pandaw ones. In order to build these ships the company has established its own ship yard in Yangon and have taken advantage of considerable engineering and marine expertise existing in Burma together with high standards of local craftsmanship.

 

7th of November: Aung Pun Choung – Yandabo – Pauk Taw Pauk Mying 106 km

 Fish soup again this morning and just as good as the first time. I think I need to find a job in Myanmar just for the soups alone. Whilst we were having breakfast we passed the confluence of the Ayeyarwady and Chindwin rivers. At a length of almost 900 km, the Chindwin River is the largest tributary of the Ayeyarwady.

In Yandabo it was time for another little walk. Historically, this small village is of some significance as the peace treaty between the Brits and the Burmese was signed here in 1826 after the first Anglo-Burmese War (with Burma losing Rakhaing and Tenasserim). The pillar marking the spot has been moved from the original site as the riverbank here has retreated 50 meters in the last 200 years.

The pottery village of Yandabo

Today, Yandabo is famous for its pottery, in particular water pots. Very friendly people here and no (well, not many) vendors. I escaped from the group again, walking around on my own. Not many birds but I did spook a fairly large Common Cobra. I don’t know who was more surprised, the snake or me…

 There is a school in the village that is supported by Pandaw, but I gave the visit a miss. I know people have the best intentions but, like in Siem Reap, visiting schools somewhat degrades the children to inhabitants of a zoo in my opinion.

Can’t remember what we had for lunch. Honestly, I found the food to be OK’ish, but certainly not outstanding. Portions were miniscule and everything was pretty bland. The soups and curries saved breakfast and at lunch there was at least a salad buffet. Main courses were always a choice of an Asian, a Western, and a Vegetarian dish. I usually went with the Asian, as the Western food was generally not so well received. Dinners I generally skipped; I do enough small talk at work, no need to continue that during my holidays. Anyway, the time from the daily cocktail to the end of the dinner was a great time to sit on the sun deck and drink a beer, quiet and peaceful.

In the afternoon we were shown the movie “The Lady” about the life of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Pretty good movie though the sub-titles for the parts in Burmese were missing. After the movie it was beers and bed.

"The Burman is the most calm and contended of mortals. He does not want to grow rich. When he does make a large sum of money, he spends it all on some pious work, and rejoices that it will meet with its reward in his next existence."

The Burman, His Life and Notions. Shway Yoe, 1882

8th of November: Pauk Taw Pauk Mying – Shwe Kyet Yet 16 km

I cannot remember what soup I had today, but I am sure it was good. We only had a short ride to Shwe Kyet Yet. This is the place were all the floats with Ironwood, Rosewood, and Teak are unloaded, as they are not allowed to go further downstream. The barges are not very maneuverable, and the authorities are concerned that they might bring down one of the bridges that span the Ayeyarwady from here on.

Shwe Kyet Yet is not a very nice place; I am not sure why we did not stop in Mandalay proper, which was 12 kilometers away. The place stank and watching people brush their teeth in the river whilst others relieved themselves a few meters away is not for the squeamish.

Mandalay is probably the one city that pretty much everyone has heard of. It was the last Royal capital (until 1886) but is surrounded by the sites of previous capitals: Sagaing (1315 -1364, 1760-1764), Inwa (known as Ava under the Poms 1315-1364), Amarapura (1782-1823, 1841-1857), and Mingun (1857-1861). Kings had a habit of establishing new capitals after defeats. Most buildings would be dismantled and taken to the new capital, meaning there is not much left to see in the old capitals.

Mandalay was not quite what I expected. Noisy, dirty, and pretty bad traffic were the things that were most obvious. We walked along the marble and stone carver street and visited a gold leaf factory. The latter was actually quite interesting, as I had always wondered how gold leaf was produced. In short: no machinery involved, just hammers, deerskin, and a LOT of pounding!

The Mahamuni Buddha in MandalayFrom there, it was on to the Mahamuni Pagoda. Home of one of the most venerated Buddha statues in Myanmar; thousands of faithful pass every day to place gold leaf on the statue. That would be male faithful, as women are not allowed to go near the statue. Legend has it that the whole process of applying gold leaf started with this Buddha. When King Bodawapaya’s Army took the statue from Mrauk U in 1784, they cut it in three to conceal it. It was then welded together when it reached Mandalay but obviously the welding techniques left a lot to be desired in those days, and gold leaf was applied to hide the seams.

Also of note here are a few statues that originated from Angkor Wat centuries ago and made it to this Pagoda, via Thailand and a few stops in Myanmar, over the course of numerous wars.

 After this, yet another teak monastery, the Shwe Nan Daw Kayung or Golden Palace monastery. This beautiful building was used as a sleeping chamber by King Mindon and it was in it that he died in 1878. Supposedly, his successor King Thibaw was afraid of Mindon’s ghost and he had the building dismantled, carted out of the royal palace area, and moved to its current location. This was fortunate as it is thus was the only original building from the Royal Palace that survived the shelling when the Ghurkas retook Mandalay from the Japanese at the end of World War II.

 We did pass the Royal Palace on the way back to the boat but I was not all that impressed. The buildings are all recent copies of the original palace and it shows. Foreigners can only visit the central part of the huge, moat-and-wall-enclosed palace area as a large part is taken up by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army). Not that it helped much against attackers, but the 70-meter wide moat and the 9-meter high that enclose a 2.5 square kilometer area are quite impressive. There are 52 spirit houses placed at the entrances and along the walls; legend has it that a human sacrifice was made for each spirit house.

We rushed back to the boat, with two quick stops to unsuccessfully look for a battery charger for myself. We even stopped at an official Canon store but they had sold the only battery charger that would work with my batteries. Not really rush, we got stuck in a massive traffic jam near the central market and only just made it back in time for lunch. At lunch I was almost run over by a Swiss couple. I had noticed them earlier as they always seemed to fear that there was not enough food available (there obviously was). The man stuck out for another reason: he would point his camera right into any face he came across, whether the person at the receiving and was happy with this or not. Oh well, having lots of money obviously does not make up for a lack of education or manners.

The afternoon saw us heading out to Amarapura the “City of Immortality” and Burma’s old capital. As mentioned, there is not much to see here as the city was pretty much dismantled when it was abandoned in 1857.

 We stopped in a silk weaving workshop. I had obviously seen this before and thus I wandered around a little. I did buy a very nice silk Longyi however. After everyone had done their shopping (nobody bought the USD 1,500 wedding gown that was on offer), we headed to the “U Bein” bridge. The 1060 teak pillars it stands on are actually from when Amarapura was a capital; during the dismantling one official asked if he could have these pillars and build the world’s longest teak wood bridge, an impressive 1.2 kilometers long.

 The place was thick with locals, tourists, and the inevitable hawkers. What really pissed me of though were the numerous birds kept in cages. People are supposed to buy and release the birds to make merit, though I do not understand how the fact that the birds are kept in terrible conditions U Bein Bridge near Amarapuraand will probably die soon after release (if they last that long) can possibly be in accordance with Buddhist teachings. What made matters worse for me that it was not just the usual Munias and Sparrows, birds included Barn Owls, Night Herons and Egrets, Black-shouldered Kite, Mynas, and on and on. Spoilt the whole excursion a little for me. We did take small rowing boats from the bridge to watch the sunset, but there was not really any. However, Mr. Win and his crew paddled around our boats with a steady supply of sparkling wine and I guess most people did not care not seeing the sun go down.

Back on the boat, Mr. Sinnamon saved me. A very nice Aussie and an Engineer by trade; he had found a way to jury-rig my batteries into his charger. Rollin, if you ever make it to Siem Reap again, the beers are on me.

That evening was supposed to be a traditional “Myanma Family Meal”. Everyone was expected to come in a Longyi, the traditional sarong-like cloth still worn by most Myanma (and correctly called Pasoe for men). This is what I wore most days anyways so I skipped dinner and my parents told me later that I did not miss much; the food was apparently not very good.

 I did watch the dance performance by students and lecturers of the Mandalay University of Arts. They were really pretty good and I enjoyed the show very much. Though there were some similarities to Khmer Apsara dance, this performance was a lot more dynamic. As mentioned earlier, performing arts are having a hard time in Burma as fewer and fewer young people want to study it. Mr. Soe particularly mentioned that donations would be very much welcome, but most of my fellow passengers chose not to hear that. A tight-fisted lot as I thought from the start: local beer, local spirits, and house wine were included throughout the cruise. Whilst the beer is pretty good, the spirits and wine were not. I think my mom was the only person that bought a different wine, everyone else stuck to the cheap, nasty, but free stuff…

We spent the night Shwe Kyet Yet, the place seemed to smell even worse than the previous night. Some of the passengers got bad news as well: Obama’s visit to Myanmar had been confirmed and they got kicked out of the Chatrium Hotel on the way back. I guess it also means that he will come to Cambodia after all, rumors about that had been floating around for months.

"The Burman attends all feasts and festivals because it is an unchangeable custom to do so; because everyone else will be there and he enjoys being in a crowd; because he can array himself in his best gaung-baung, and he will find all the ladies there similarly arrayed; and most of all, because whatever the occasion of the festival it will be a splendid feast."

HP Cochrane, Amongst the Burmans 1904

9th of November: Shwe Kyet Yet – Mingun – Sithe 84.8 kilometers

I think everyone was pretty happy to leave rather dirty Shwe Kyet Yet and travel the 3 hours to Mingun, passing Mandalay on the way. No soup this morning, we got Indian curry and Chapattis. We had this previously but that was fine with me, both curry and Chapatti were good.

The star attraction of Mingun is impossible to miss and visible from a long way out: Mingun Paya would have been the biggest Stupa had it ever been finished. Started by King Bodawpaya in 1790, he stopped the work after almost 30 years when a soothsayer told him that he would die if the Stupa were ever completed (he died 5 years later anyway).  The single largest mass of brick building in the world (or the biggest pile of bricks), the sides are 150 meters long and the building is 80 meters high.

As usual, I left the group behind and explored on my own. I was surprised by the huge number of stands selling drinks, gifts, and paintings as I did not see that many tourists. That mystery was solved around 10:00 when all the boats doing half-day tours arrive from Mandalay, bringing hundreds ofMyatheintan Pagoda in Mingun foreigners. Luckily I had by then been up to the Mingun Paya (great views) and visited the Hsinbyume Paya (even better views in my opinion). The latter is actually a very attractive Pagoda, surrounded by seven wavy terraces representing the seven mountain ranges around Mt. Meru, the center of the universe according to the Buddhist cosmos.

 Obviously they like everything a little bigger in Mingun and the village also houses the largest uncracked bell in the world (there is a larger bell in Moscow but that one is cracked). Weighing a massive 90 tons, 12 feet tall and 16 feet and 3 Inches wide at its lip, the bell sounds… tinny. Cast by King Bodawpaya in 1808, the bell was supposed to be dedicated to Mingun Paya.

Leaving Mingun, we had a 5-hour drive ahead. Fine with me, in particular as we saw 5-6 Irrawaddy Dolphins en route. It is not like they jump or ride the bow wave, they barely break the surface but it was still a great sight. Like in Cambodia, this Dolphin is critically endangered as it frequently gets inadvertently caught in gill nets where it will drown. One can only hope that the Burmese government is better at protecting the remaining few Dolphins than their Cambodian counterparts.

We reached South Sithe in the late afternoon. A nice little village but I did not really join the excursion except to try some Betel nut. Mixed with tobacco and lime and wrapped in a “Pan” leaf it tasted just as bad as the last time I ate it; 30 years ago in Kenya. Chewing Betel nut is pretty common but it certainly leaves its marks, both on the teeth of the people as well as everywhere else, in the form of bright red blotches dotting every surface.

 Dinner was supposed to be an Indian Curry and I decided to join in for only the second time on this cruise. Complete waste of time as the curry was inedible.

There was a movie presentation on artist life in Mingun, but I gave that one a miss in favor of a cold Myanmar Beer.

"The bazaar is almost wholly run by women, each having her own stall, and keeping the accounts in her head. Vastly better than her indolent husband or brother, she knows how to make money and keep what she makes"

HP Cochrane, Amongst the Burmans (1904)

10th of November: Sithe – Nwe Nyein – Kyar Nyat 100.8 kilometers

Everybody got woken up a little earlier than planned when a boat passed, blaring music at what felt like 140 Decibels! At 04:40! Through a loudspeaker made out of tin! Myanmar might not be as noisy as Vietnam, but it is not exactly quiet, either. Once my ears had recovered, I could hear music coming from pretty much all directions. The boat that had everyone fall out of bed was a small ferry that used the loud music to tell potential customers that it was coming. I guess the music was loud enough that people had enough time to shower, have a tea, eat breakfast, read a book, go shopping, and then get on the ferry. On top of the rude awakening, it was also bitterly cold with the thermometer barely passing the 21° mark.

The attraction of Nwe Nyein is the big glazed pots that are produced here. However, we were certainly the attraction to the local kids; they even put away their spinning tops to gawk at us. Fair enough, most of the time it was the other way round. There is an ugly bridge over the Ayeyarwady being built here, taking away some of the charm of this pottery village (most of the bridge would collapse during the earthquake the next morning).

 We did not stick around for too long and soon we were off for the 7-hour drive to Kyar Nyat.  Personally, I think Pandaw Cruises should take this village out of the itinerary; it is a garbage-strewn shithole and quite a few of the fellow passengers complained. Apparently, the place was not that dirty when the Military was in power as they made residents clean up once a week. They cannot do that anymore, as they will otherwise be accused of “human rights abuse”. One of the downsides of “democracy”. Kyar Nyat’s only claim to fame is the grave of Captain “The General” E.B.J. Vaughn of the 6th Punjab Infantry. According to the head stone, he was murdered on the 26th of February 1887; according to the Burmese he got his head chopped off for raping the local girls. I decided to leave this very unpleasant town early and turn my attention to a cold beer.

I skipped dinner but did watch the movie presentation “The History of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and Pandaw Cruises”.

 

A Short History of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company

(With kind permission of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company)

The original Irrawaddy flotilla was a naval task force of paddle steamers and flats (barges) sent from India to transport British and Indian troops upriver in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852. Unlike the First War, when the British were caught out by the monsoon, this war was a highly organized affair. Preparations in India were extensive and included the transfer of steam paddle ships of the Bengal Marine for troop transportation on the Irrawaddy. These were officered by British and crewed by lascars. Taking advantage of divisions at the court of Ava, the flotilla advanced rapidly up the river capturing Prome and then the prized Myede forests just above Thayet Myo. The British had never intended to hack off so large a chunk of territory, the original plan was to capture and hold Martaban, Rangoon, and Bassein – the important southern ports. However, the Province of Pegu, rendered defenseless by a government in turmoil, with its extensive forests and rich resources was to great a spoil. Interestingly, the commander of the naval operations (who died of illness on the river) was the brother of author Jane Austen, Rear-Admiral Austen. Meanwhile, at the capital of Amarapura, the King Pagan Min was deposed by Mindon who promptly negotiated a treaty with the British.

 In 1864 the Governor of British Burma, Sir Arthur Phayre, decided to privatize the flotilla. After the cessation of hostilities it had been assigned to peacetime duties. Todd, Findlay and Co., a Scots firm established originally in Moulmein and latterly in the emerging capital of Rangoon, purchased the four steamers and three flats. As a sweetener the government guaranteed mail contacts but, given the poor condition of the vessels, Todd, Findlay, and Co. had nothing but trouble with them. However, the potential had been realized and in 1865 a company was formed in Glasgow with Paddy Hendersons shipping line, who were already in Burma with Rangoon a port of call on their New Zealand runs, and Denny’s of Dumbarton, the shipbuilders. This partnership of merchants, shippers, and shipbuilders was to offer a combined expertise and experience that gave the company an entrepreneurial thrust linked to a grasp of technology.

 By the late 1860’s it proved necessary to replace the old government steamers and new vessels were built on the Clyde, dismantled and shipped out for reconstruction in Rangoon. It took some years and much trial and error though before the company perfected a design suited to the difficult conditions of the Irrawaddy with its perilous shallows. By 1872 the fleet comprised eight new steamers and twelve flats. Services operated between Rangoon and Prome in British Burma, in Royal Burma up to Mandalay, and by 1869 Bhamo. The company realized the importance of the China trade and saw the importance of a river link to South West China through Burma. Though King Mindon was said to have moved capital to Mandalay from Ava in 1855 out of irritation at the sound of passing steamers’ whistles, and despite efforts to establish a flotilla of his own, the company prospered in Royal Burma thanks to the close relationship between the company agent, Dr. Clement Williams, and the King.

 In 1885 the flotilla was used in the 3rd Anglo-Burmese War to transport an entire army into Royal Burma to occupy Mandalay with scarcely a shot fired. For the following sixty years, until the Japanese invasion of 1942, the story of Burma, with her rise to great wealth and economic supremacy among the Asian nations, is intertwined with the operations and activities of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Scots guile was quick to realize that Burma was a land of rivers and even with the completion of roads and railways the river remained the key to the riches of Burma.

 By the 1920’s the fleet consisted of 622 units (267 powered), from the magnificent Siam class of 326 feet long (the same length as the height of the Shwedagon Pagoda) and licensed to carry 4,oo passengers, to pilot craft and tug boats. In a normal year the company carried eight million passengers (without loss of life) and 1.25 million tons of cargo. Irrawaddy vessels tended to have side paddles and would tow two flats, each lashed to either side. On the Chindwin, which was pioneered during Thibaw’s reign by company steam launch in 1875, a radical new design was created by Denny’s to cope with the shallow conditions. To balance the displacement, the paddle was situated in the stern and the boiler in the bow. This steam wheeler type would draw only 2.5 feet of water and, as the Chindwin valley was wooded, regular fueling stations were set up so the vessels did not need burden itself. The larger company ships had Scots masters and engineers and lascar crews recruited mainly from the Chittagon area, the lesser ones were entirely Chittagonian. The company had 200 expats based in Burma and a local staff of 11,000. Head Office was in Glasgow but in these pleasant phoneless and faxless days regional “Assistants” were autonomous. There was one telegram a month from Rangoon to Glasgow and that consisted of one line only – the total takings!

 In addition to passenger and cargo transport the company operated a fleet of oil barges to carry crude oil from the Chauk area to the Syriam oil refinery for the Burmah Oil Company. Paddy was carried for Steel Brothers on specially designed baddy boats and timer for the Burmah Bombay Corporation. The company pamphlet of 1935 describes produce carried:

 “- great bales of cotton, bags of rice, blocks of Jade, lacquerware from Pagan, silk, tamarind, elephants, sometimes woven mats, maize, jaggery, bullocks, marble Buddhas, oilcake, tobacco, timber. Upward bound will be various imports from Europe, motor cars, corrugated iron, condensed milk, matches, aluminum ware, sewing machines, piece goods, soap, cigarettes, cement and whisky. Every class of goods that enters or leaves Burma finds its way onto an Irrawaddy boat.”

 In 1934 the Irrawaddy Flotilla& Airways was set up offering scheduled services and charters – including an unusual service for devout Buddhists whereby an aircraft would encircle the Magwe Pagoda seven times. The passing of company steamers was part of river life and when the company changed steamer design and removed a funnel there was an outcry among the Burmese villagers. A 2nd dummy funnel had to be added in the interest of public relations.

 The Irrawaddy is an untamable river – there are neither locks nor weirs to control the level as on the Mississippi or Nile – and in the monsoon the water level has an average rise of 50 feet (in the first Defile 200 feet). Nor are there charts, for the sands shift with such rapidity that they would be out of date before the ink is dry. Instead, the company operated its fleet safely end efficiently through the experience of her masters and pilots and a clever and inexpensive system of Bamboo marker buoys. Buoy Boats in charge of beats constantly checked and marked the channels with buoys and the bearings with marker posts on the riverbanks. If a captain went aground he had to stay with his vessel, in the case of the Momein in 1919 for a whole year. In 1877 the Kha Byoo was caught in a whirlpool in the second defile between Katha and Bhamo. She spent three days spinning in a circle before getting free and the captain’s hair had turned white.

 The captains lived on the bridge and many of the river features were named after incidents they experienced at their hands, thus there was “Becketts’s Bluff” or “MacFarlane’s Folly”. Scott O’Connor best captures their proud commands:

 “Some of the steamers that come this way are of the largest size; mailers on their way from Mandalay; cargo boats with flats in tow, laden with produce of the land; and when they come round the bend into full view of Maubin, the great stream shrinks and looks strangely small, as it if were overcome by a monster from another world. Three hundred feet they are in length, these steamers with flats in tow, half as wide, and they forge imperiously ahead as if all space belonged to them, and swing round and roar out of their anchor chains, while the lascars leap, and the skipper’s white face gleans in the heavy shadows by the wheel – the face of a man in command.

 And when you see this wonderful spectacle for the first time, you step on board this great boat expecting to fin an imperious man with eyes alight with power, and the consciousness of power, and the knowledge that he is playing a great part. But you are disappointed, for you find a plain man, very simple in his habits and ways with weariness written about the corners of his red eyes. Ah! They know their work, these men…. And I say nothing of the Clyde men who rule the throbbing engines…’ Silken East, 1904

 The story of the Irrawaddy Flotilla is a story of Scottish-Burmese partnership. As the yards on the Clyde where these great ships were built stand silent, so too do the yards of the Rangoon River where they were once reassembled. In the first part of the last century two dissimilar nations established a rapport and shared a prodigious wealth that neither country had known before or since. The demise of the flotilla was perhaps the saddest day of British merchant marine history; when else have six hundred vessels been lost in one fell swoop? That swoop was neither natural disaster nor enemy action, but at the hands of the companies own officers. In 1942, before the oncoming of the Imperial Japanese Army, following the evacuation of Rangoon and escape to the upper river, they gunned holes in the great ships’ hulls rather than let them fall into enemy hands. It was called an “Act of Denial”.

11th of November: Kyar Nyat – Tagoung – Katha 137.6 kilometers

The coldest morning yet, at 19 degrees. A couple of coffees and a noodle soup later and I stopped shivering. The Myanma were dressed for snow, but even most of the foreigners put on a light jacket (not an option for me, my only jacket is probably lying next to my batter charger in Siem Reap).

I thought us Krauts were anally retentive, but the Swiss beat even us: the first sight was one of the passengers cleaning his (spotless) walking boots! With a toothbrush!! A toothbrush brought all the way from Switzerland for exactly this purpose!!! Ah well, I guess it is none of my business on how different folks spend their holidays.

We left Kyar Nyat for the 32-kilometer cruise to Tagoung. Luckily this small town, 25,000 inhabitants, was not as dirty and depressing as Kyar Nyat and people were very friendly. TagoungThe band played a welcome was supposedly built by the last descendant of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) in the 5th Century and is considered the birthplace of Myanmar. A fortified garrison stood here until the 19th Century, but today there is only a few bricks left as well as a sign indicating where the Tropic of Cancer passes through.

 A lot of ground to cover that day, thus it was a short visit only before we cast off to cruise for the rest of the day. Lunch was so-so; the pork cutlets were the size of a small stamp and the rice was disgusting. I assume the kitchen does have an automatic rice cooker, every household in Asia does; I did not know that it was possible to overcook rice in one of those.

As I left lunch Mr. Win told me that there had been an earthquake measuring 6.3 that morning, with the epicenter about 60 kilometers from Nwe Nyein, the pottery village we visited the day before. According to him, there was considerable damage to that village. That also explained the sudden vibrations on the boat just after we berthed in Tagoung.

Burma Road

The so-called Burma Road – actually a network of three major routes – came about during WWII, when Japanese invasion forces closed in on Myanmar from the north via China and from the south via Thailand. On what was known as the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre, Allied supplies for the ground war fought in Lower Burma were easily flown or shipped from India. Supplying the China front, however, required dangerous flights over “The Hump”, a series of high Himalayan peaks that separate Myanmar and China.

Over 1,000 airmen died flying this route, prompting the Allies to look for a new way to supply Chiang Kai-chek’s nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) army, who were fighting the Japanese in western China. The Yuannese themselves built the original Burma road from Kunming to Wanting, China, between 1937 band 1939. They then laid an extension into Myanmar from Wanting to Lashio in 1940, for a total length of 1,200 km. Early in the war, this Lashio-Kunming route served as the main supply line for the KMT, but as Japanese pressure from the south increased, the Allies looked for an alternate route from India.

American General Joseph Stillwell proposed the construction of an all-weather, two-lane road from India to China via Northern Myanmar. The plan was to link up not with the original Lashio-Kunming route, but with a rough dry-weather track developed by the Chinese between Bhamo in Southern Chin State and Yunchang, Yunnan. British army engineers, using a track created by war refugees fleeing to India from Upper Burma, began building the 800 km Ledo road from Ledo, Assam, to the Bhamo terminus of the Bhamo road in 1942.

A huge contingent of American engineers took over in November 1942, and assembled 35,000 Burmese, Indian, British, and Chinese troops to tackle the enormous task of cutting through thick jungle, upgrading the Bhamo track, and spanning 10 major rivers and 155 secondary streams between Ledo and Wanting. So many men were lost along the way that the builders sardonically dubbed the route the “man-a-mile road”.

Completed in May 1945, the Ledo road – also known as the Stillwell road – was maintained until a year later, when all Allied troops were withdrawn from the CBI Theatre. The Myitkyina Bridge, which spanned over the Irrawaddy River south of Myitkyina and was the longest pontoon bridge in the world, was deemed an obstacle to river traffic and was dismantled in 1947. One of the chief post-war effects was the opening up of Kachin Stae remains of the Ledo road, which quickly fell into disuse.

The main Lashio-Kunming route, though in poor condition nowadays, sees much traffic from China as the border crossing at Mu-Se became lately a legal overland port of entry from China.

 12th of November: Katha – Kyun Daw 76.8 kilometers

 We left on a local express boat for the 4-hour trip to the 2nd defile. I secured a seat on the deck in front of the wheelhouse whilst everybody else sat inside. I think I had the best spot as the engines were pretty noisy, though it was quite chilly at first, a not so warm 17 degrees when we set off.

The defile is only 60 meters wide at its narrowest part, and the whole scenery was very picturesque with forests reaching right down to the banks. Less picturesque was the constant sound of chainsaws. The logging is illegal but the loggers have watch posts stationed at both ends of the defile; when the police or forest department approach, whistles go off and all goes quiet.

We got back in time for me to go to a local “beer station” together with Mr. Soe, excellent views over the river and great draft Myanmar beer at 600 Khat a glass. The crew also enjoyed some downtime and headed out, though I do not think there was much nightlife; the town pretty much shut down at 20:30 and the power went off not much later. It was Burmese dinner again that night nut I gave it a miss.

The Road to Mandalay (by Rudyard Kipling)

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,

            Where the flyin' fishes play,

            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China

            'crost the Bay!

 

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,

She'd git 'er little banjo and she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!"

With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin my cheek

We useter watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.

            Elephants a-pilin' teak

            In the sludgy, squdgy creek,

            Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!

            On the road to Mandalay,

            Where the flyin' fishes play,

            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China

            'crost the Bay!

 

But that's all above be'ind me --- long ago an' fur away,

An' there ain't no buses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;

An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:

"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."

            No! You won't 'eed nothin' else

            But them spicy garlic smells,

            An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly Temple-bells;

            On the road to Mandalay,

            Where the flyin' fishes play,

            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China

            'crost the Bay!

 

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,

An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;

Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,

An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but what do they understand?

            Beefy face an' grubby 'and ---

            Law! Wot do they understand?

            I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

            On the road to Mandalay,

            Where the flyin' fishes play,

            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China

            'crost the Bay!

 

Ship me somewhere's east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;

For the Temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be ---

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea;

            On the road to Mandalay,

            Where the old Flotilla lay,

            With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

            On the road to Mandalay,

            Where the flyin' fishes play,

            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China

            'crost the Bay!

 

13th of November: Katha – Hti Gyint 67.2 kilometers

 I took an early walk through Katha. Most shops started opening early, at 06:00 the town and market were already very busy. A long column of monks sneaked through the streets, asking for alms, housewives were busy buying breakfast, kids were already in class, and the rivers were lined with people washing their clothes. As a matter of fact if there is a sound I will always associate with Myanmar it is the slap-slap-slap of wooden paddles hitting the laundry. Lonely Planet states that Katha is a “sleepy” town but I guess the authors just did not get out of bed early enough.

 After breakfast we headed about 45 minutes out of town to the Nat Tauk Elephant Camp. We were promised a 20-minute “jungle walk” but it turned out to be a little stroll through badly degraded Farewell Dinner on the Beachforest with hardly a bird in it. I did not stick around for the circus performance, a little too touristy for me, and headed back to the bus. The buses had an interesting design: the seats were a good meter off the ground and the shorter folks had real trouble getting up. Obviously the space would normally be filled with goods as the buses ply the route to the Chinese border.

 We left Katha just before lunch for a 3-hours cruise to the village of Mel-Him which translates as Beef Curry. I left the group and discovered a very nice stilt bridge traversing the rice filed to a teak Pagoda just north of the village. It might not be very social but I think I saw a lot more by always sneaking away on my own.

 We moved on to Hti Gyint and stopped at a sandbank across the town. Here, the Pandaw crew had yet another surprise in store for us: this evenings cocktail would be on the sandbank. Chairs and tables were set up in no time, kerosene torches provided the light, and there was cold Champagne waiting for us. It certainly beat back-packing! To finish of the sunset cocktail the crew set off fireworks, it was really a pleasant evening, an evening that finished with a few beers and a movie on Myanmar during World War II.

 Tea Shops in Myanmar

(With kind permission of the Irrawaddy River Flotilla)

Teashops are an important and integral part of life in Myanmar. As a foreigner who first arrives in Myanmar, you will be surprised to see so many teashops in Yangon and everywhere else in Myanmar. They are everywhere in every street. And there are always customers in every teashop. Nowhere else in South-East Asia will you find such a large number of teashops. When I was young, there were not as many teashops as there are now. And the attitude of our parents at the time was that “sitting at a teashop” was a waste of time. We, me and my friends, were always told not to sit in a teashop. That was 15 years ago. Now, everything has changed. Myanmar people use the words “sit at a  teashop” because we really sit at a teashop for a very long time, sometimes even hours, after ordering just a cup of tea. The teashop may sell a few snacks.. And there is always free flow of plain green tea. You can order as much plain tea as you like free of charge. So the main reason we sit at a teashop is just to sit and chat. Well, there is more than just sit and chat. Teashops are where friends meet each other, where business is done, where news and gossip are exchanged. You can meet people and hear the latest gossip just by sitting in a teashop.

There are many styles of teashop ion Myanmar. But the most popular one is the road side teashop. Small, low tables are laid down on the pavement, and the customers sit on small stools. Usually, nice tea is served with a few snacks, and free flow of plain tea.

A new trend among city dwellers nowadays is to have your first meal of the day, which is breakfast, at a teashop. More and more people are having breakfast at teashops nowadays. For that reason, many teashops serve not only serve a nice tea, but a selection of breakfast snacks such as Mohinga (fish soup with noodles), Coconut cream noodle soup, fried Samosas, spring rolls, and other snacks.

If you really want to experience the Burmese way of life, you should sit at a teashop and have a wonderful experience that you can never have in other parts of the world.

14 of November: Hti Gyint – Nwe Nyein 158.4 kilometers:

We crossed the river at 08:30 to visit Hti Gyint. The place looks deceptively small from the river but it actually has 140,000 inhabitants hidden behind the hill. The name of the town means “Upside-down Umbrella” as large parts are sort of tucked away in a small valley. Hti Gyint was an important fortress in the 18th Century to protect lower Myanmar from the Chinese. I had seen enough towns by now and only walked up the 308 steps to the hill-top Pagoda. Not much of a view really, the surrounding brush had grown too thick and too tall.

Some people visited the town but I headed back to the boat to get a beer in. There was also some presentation on disembarkation the next day but I gave that a miss; I figured I'd find out soon enough.

We spent the rest of the day cruising back to smelly Nwe Nyein near Mandalay were we had berthed previously. If anything, it smelt worse than before.

15th of November: Mandalay

We only disembarked after lunch time to head to our hotel a little outside Mandalay. Only open for 4 months when we were there, the Hotel Shwe Pyi Thar is pretty ugly from the outside but the rooms are very OK (as they should be at USD 195.00 a night).

I do not think we did much that evening, just had dinner at the hotel restaurant (so-so) and a few beers (Ralf and me) and wine (Juliane).

16th and 17th of November:

We had arranged a car and driver to take us around Mandalay that morning, my Mom wanted to visit the Jade Market, but the weather was terrible and we instead went to the Lashiolay Shan Restaurant for a late breakfast/early lunch. Until about 11:00 the customers were all local, picking up take-away lunches, after that it got very back-packerish. Good excuse to head back to the hotel, grab my bag, and head to the airport.

I spent the night in Yangon at the 7 Mile Motel. I was a bit worried about what sort of hotel I would find myself in, but it was actually pretty OK.

And that was that. My parents would stay on for another 2 weeks, but for me it was back to Cambodia and back to the treadmill.

 

 

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