Images and text by Marianne Scott
“Beyond the Club, the Irrawaddy flowed huge and ochreous glittering like diamonds in the patches that caught the sun; and beyond the river stretched great wastes of paddy fields . . .” This is one of the lines in George Orwell’s exotic tale, Burmese Days, that enticed my husband, David, and me to book a river cruise in Myanmar in 2016.
The Irrawaddy bisects Myanmar from north to south, and is one of the world’s rivers that conjures up a mystical vision. Its shifting, meandering route has offered transportation for 1,500 years and provides irrigation and drinking water to millions. It’s part of the country’s spiritual life and is also used by villagers along its route for fishing, laundry and bathing. We wanted to see it all.
Before starting our river trip, we spent two days in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar’s largest city. Then it was on to Pyay by bus, a 160-mile journey that would allow us to begin an eight-day river cruise. I stayed glued to the bus window during the informative ride to get a feel for how people live outside the country’s cities.
The elite—the military and friends of the regime—inhabit stuccoed homes, but many people live in dwellings made of woven bamboo raised on stilts. Countless shacks along the potholed road sold snacks and sodas; I was terrified by the fast moving traffic skimming by the locals’ bikes and motorbikes, but they seemed unafraid. One worldwide scourge—plastic bottles—littered ditches and yards.
Arriving at the ship, we were greeted by the longyi-clad young men who looked after us (longyis are sarong-like garments worn by both sexes). “Mingalaba!” was the enthusiastic greeting that serves as an all-purpose “hello” and “goodbye.” We watched in awe as our luggage arrived. Shod in flip-flops, petite women walked down the mudbank carrying our 50-lbs suitcases on their heads! I could barely lift my bag a foot let alone crank it atop my cranium.
The first evening we met other passengers from Canada, the U.S., U.K. and Israel and were introduced to a mix of Burmese and western-style foods available at all our on-board meals. The Burmese dishes are delicious, moderately spicy and I tried them all, believing that local food is a great window on the nation’s culture. Soup for breakfast, anyone?
We shared the ship with only 50 other passengers. Almost our first question of the crew was what we should call the country—“Burma” or “Myanmar?” They were adamant: Myanmar. “Burma was named for the Burman tribe,” the head guide told me. “That name didn’t reflect our country’s many ethnic groups.”
The river is the historical, cultural and economic heart of Myanmar — meandering, wide, shallow, fast flowing, impressive. Two rivers originating in the northern Himalayan glaciers eventually merge to form the Irrawaddy. During the monsoon it can rise 37 feet—hence the houses on stilts. The river’s dun-colored waters run at two-and-half knots and transport gigantic quantities of sediment that form continually changing islets and sand banks.
When I visited the bridge, the captain told me the ship carries no charts or GPS, as currents and sediment bring changes too fast for new chart creation. That’s why he steers the ship by sight and by hand and only travels during daylight hours. At dark, the ship moored by tying to wood poles pounded into the beach sand. Out came the folding aluminum whippy footbridge allowing passengers on-shore access. Young men stood by to ensure no one stumbled.
Every day, we had a different adventure. We mounted small horse-drawn carts and visited a spread-out market. Colorful reed baskets stored spices, vegetables, fruits, hot peppers, eggs and many edibles I couldn’t identify. Most women—and some men—wore smears of ivory-colored cream on their faces: it’s thanakha, made from the bark of the limonia acidissima tree, touted as a natural cosmetic acting as sunscreen, anti-ageing potion and insect repellent. Baskets of betel nuts—resembling sliced nutmegs—were abundant. These mildly stimulative fruits are chewed, leaving addicts’ gums and teeth a dark maroon.
We visited other villages, some with extensive markets, one devoted to making the clay pots everyone uses. We witnessed how labor-intensive traditional lacquerware is to make and how artisans pound gold leaf. Another village lined up several classes of beautiful, shy school children who sang for us weird white folks. Aboard, we loved watching an ingenious, colorful puppet show and traditional Myanmar dancers in dazzling silk costumes.
In Myanmar, the number of pagodas boggle the mind—an estimated 500,000 pagodas inhabit the landscape. Everywhere brick, wood or plastered temples crowned by stupas peak above the treeline and houses. Monks—also numbering 500,000—are venerated, as are the 75,000 nuns. They beg for alms and food and their housing is publicly supported. Full of western practicality, I asked how this huge number of religious practitioners and temples might prevent improving Myanmar’s social services and infrastructure. “Well,” the guide said, “we see our religious support as an honor and a duty. And the monks are a strong political force that helped make our country more open.”
Our visit to Bagan reinforced how important spiritual life is in Myanmar; the town is home to 2,229 pagodas. We walked among a few dozen shrines of all ages amidst dusty agricultural fields, each containing niches with an astonishing variety of Buddha countenances. One highlight was the sprawling, 11th century Ananda Temple, sometimes called the “Westminster Abbey of Burma.”
Pagodas are the most common visitor attractions, truly Myanmar’s museums. Be prepared to remove all footwear, including socks. Some floors exposed to sunlight can burn your feet. Other rough or pebbly floors can be painful to the tender-footed.
Our visit to Mandalay was the final treat of our cruise. By chance, we were there during the annual water festival—a five-day national holiday that celebrates the Buddhist New Year. Young people lined the streets with water barrels ready to inundate any passersby. We got drenched several times, agreeable in the 104° F heat.
We traveled through Mandalay on foot and by bus through impressive crowds. While we inched through the traffic jams, the scene provided a marvellous opportunity to observe Burmese at play. Pickup trucks were jammed with young people—the boys with heavily gelled hair—and others were crammed into and on top of busses—no nanny state yammering about safety here.
We ended our voyage at the U Bein Bridge near Mandalay, believed to be the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world. Built in 1850 with a total of 482 spans, U Bein is a lake crossing 1.2-kilometers or three-quarters of a mile in length.
After we boarded large, colorfully-painted canoes, a single boatman with criss-crossed paddles propelled our vessel. As our guide passed out glasses of red wine, we toasted throngs of holidayers crossing the bridge. The intense tangerine reflections of the setting sun reminded us of Orwell’s “ochreous glittering.” It was a magical conclusion to our trip up the Irrawaddy.
Two days in Yangon
During our two days in Yangon, we were struck by many grand colonial buildings dating from the days of British Empire rule (1824 to 1948), although the tropical climate has taken its toll with the growth of mold and vegetation on the facades. The ubiquitous pagodas, however, are well maintained. Yangon’s most famous monument is the extraordinary Shwedagon Pagoda, a 325-foot-high temple covered by three tons of real gold and 8,000 jewels. The 114-acre compound includes innumerable richly-decorated pagodas, Buddha-filled shrines, lion sculptures and other embellishments. It was overwhelming as we wandered for hours over the marble floors, barefoot as required.
Follow Up FactsThe author’s cruise tour is no longer available. However, there are several reputable operators presently doing similar itineraries in 2017 and 2018 on the Irrawaddy River: Scenic River Cruises, Avalon Waterways, Wendy Wu Tours.
Myanmar Tourism, www.tourismmyanmar.org. There are only eight Asian countries that do not require a tourist visa to visit Myanmar. Citizens of all others must obtain a visa or e-visa to travel in the country.
Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Marianne Scott writes for numerous publications in the U.S., Canada and the UK. She also writes as a volunteer for some non-profit organizations. Marianne is the author of Naturally Salty — Coastal Characters of the Pacific Northwest, and Ocean Alexander, the First 25 Years. Her website is www.saltytales.com.
Other articles by Marianne Scott in our Travel Article Library are: A Walk Through Berlin’s Public Art, Spain’s Self-Catering Apartments or Hotel Accommodation: Which Works Best?, An Annual World-Class Music Festival on British Columbia’s Remote Pacific Coast and An Exploration of Oregon’s Coast.