Myanmar: On the Road to Mandalay

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Mingalarbar! I’m now on a wonderful river cruise run by Pandaw. The boats are flat bottomed to allow for the shallow river during the dry winter months (Oct to Mar) and are made of teak in Myanmar. They are based on the original boats used by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (est 1865) and were the main transport vehicles used on the river in what was then British Burma – hence the Irrawaddy or more correctly Ayeyarwady, was called the “Road to Mandalay”. The river starts in Kachin State, with its longest inlet and source coming from the Himalayas in south-eastern Tibet. It is about 2170 kms long and bisects the country from north to south, eventually empting through nine deltas into the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean. We travelled upstream; departing from Yangon and slowly made our way north to Mandalay.

The river is a bustling highway, full of commuters; both commercial and passenger. It changes with each rainy season as the sand islands move, and the flood plains create new islands and wash the banks away as well as whole villages who have to relocate. This has been particularly noticeable in recent years with increased deforestation. Under the military rule, the Chinese basically have had free-reign and took whatever resources they wanted; gold, rubies, silver, jade, coal, oil and teak – you name it. The people and environment are now paying for it, but the new administration are trying to amend the past ways and stop the logging and help the river and the villages along its banks.

The river is very shallow and due to its changing nature, GPS mapping and sonar can’t be used. Instead every 50 kms (or so) we took on a new Navigator that assisted the Captain and the 1st Officer to find the deepest part of the river. In addition there were 2 people up front measuring the depth (right and left) with a pole to ensure we kept to the deepest part.

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Yangon City – a mix of new and old colonial style
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the banks of the river opposite Yangon
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river taxi

The Myanmar people are predominantly Buddhist and it permeates into everyday life. You see countless Stupas and Temples – most painted with gold leaf! The gold produced from the mines is used mainly for the temples, not the jewellery; which was predominantly silver – though I did look for gold jewellery…

It was very relaxing slowly passing villages and other boats. Everyone waves and says hello – Mingalarbar!

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one of the many thousands of Golden Temples/Stupas

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Towards sunset we actually reached a tributary to the Ayeyarawady, having been on one of the channels from Yangon that flowed from the river. The river was very busy with evening fishing and end of day activities; all framed in the first of many beautiful sunsets.

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Fishing at sunset
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first of the many beautiful sunsets

We soon got into a routine of casting off early in the morning (about 5:30 am), followed by  a morning activity in the local town (Maubin), usually after breakfast. Each town seemed to have a central Tower Clock – always green and a bustling market. We quickly discovered the joys of markets shopping for “Longyi” (Myanmar skirt) and handicrafts. The Pandaw2 had 2 guides which also gave us instructions on customs and Myanmar Culture. So we had a fun afternoon early on learning how both the men and women tie their Longyi as well as how to apply the “Tha Na kha” make-up that everyone also wears. It is as ubiquitous as the betel nut chewing. Tha Na kha comes from the bark of a tree and is used as sun screen, prevention of pimples and generally for good complexion for children, boys and girls, men and women. The Myanmar people are all very good looking with beautiful skin – so maybe it works!

On day 3 we stopped at Danubyu and had fun travelling on Trishaws; or really side-car bicycles to visit a Monastery that had a monument to a revered Burmese General – Bandula –  killed there in the 1st Anglo-Burmese war in 1825.  All monasteries were originally education institutions, until the Military regime took over. The residences are now mostly empty and falling into decay, but it was still a working monastery, just not a university.

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preparing betel nut “chews” – betel leaf, chopped betel nut, limestone paste and then ground tobacco – yum…
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locals are just as interested in us – a little girl taking pictures for her family!
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local school girls
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school children watching us walk past
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Mingalarbar!
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Road to the Monastery
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Nuns in Pink

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Monastery

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Upon arrival at our afternoon stop in Zalun, we received a wonderful welcome from a local tribe singing and dancing. Apparently, they travel around the villages in the district and perform in the markets; not just for us… ooh well.. it was fun to watch while our boat crew created steps on the banks of the river to enable us to get to the village.

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In Zalun we visited an amazingly beautiful temple, of mirrors and gold throughout. It had an infamous history and mythology of a Golden Buddha. The Buddha was apparently stolen by the British and was going to be transported to England, via India. So many mishaps and intrigues occurred, as well as Queen Victoria also supposedly having a dream about this Buddha, it was “lost” but eventually recovered and found near this town.

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Temple in Zalun

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Zalun Temple
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Golden Buddha
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Beautiful gold-leaf artwork adorned the pillars
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Another beautiful sunset – from the top deck of our boat – Pandaw 2

We cast off and headed to Hinthada to moor overnight.

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