Our initial visit to Myanmar (or Burma as it was previously known) took place in our extended time in Southeast Asia in the winter of 2003 to 2004. We had only two weeks on our visa, but managed to see a large part of the country then open to foreign tourists. Myanmar was still under a very repressive military dictatorship, and we conscientiously tried to give the government as little money as possible, and left the country convinced that they only managed to get $19 from us through taxes and fees.
But we loved the country–its varied landscapes, its magnificent temples, the quiet serenity of its villages–but most of all its people, joyous and playful, firm in their focus on family and community, and so very open and friendly with visitors as alien as we clearly were.
In November of 2017, the opportunity to return to Burma was presented to us by our very special friend, Judi Kesson. She and her recently passed husband Ken have been our mentors in living the nomadic life since the late 1980’s, inspired by their decades of similar travel through over 140 countries. Judi asked us if we would be interested in traveling up the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, and Dave, for one, jumped at the opportunity. He had been interested in that journey since reading George Orwell’s Burma Days while still in his twenties, only to have that desire amplified by Daniel Mason’s wonderful novel The Piano Tuner. Both feature journeys up the Irrawaddy and both capture the atmosphere of Burma while long under British colonial rule. So we put our money down and set aside early December of 2018 to take the trip with Judi, our first opportunity ever to travel with her.
In the interim, we witnessed with the world the oppression, killing and exile of the small Rohingya minority on the western border by the military, still in control of the government even after parliamentary elections. And while Aung San Suu Kyi may still be viewed as a humanitarian leader outside Burma, and is adored by the Burmese people themselves, there is growing evidence that she, as part of a Buddhist elite, is complicit in that genocide as well. Indeed, it is hardly difficult to find human rights abuses almost anywhere in the underdeveloped world. So this led us to seriously consider cancelling our trip, but given our advancing age, we had to treat this as perhaps our last chance to fulfill a long held dream. So we went, and today are so very glad that we did.
We had three days in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar and long its capital when called Rangoon, and we will have more on it in a later posting. We began the river portion of our trip by busing for about seven hours north to the town of Pyay. There was something familiar about this spanking new Chinese bus as well, though we had no idea why it was painted with this particular graphic.
We boarded the boat and began our trip north, traveling for seven days upriver to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, and then even further north for another two days of exploring the less traveled part of the river before returning to Mandalay and disembarking.
We thoroughly enjoyed the entire group of Judi’s friends who accompanied us, most from her neighborhood near Rosarito Beach in Baja, Mexico, and all were into exploration and fun. That’s Judi in the spotlight, wearing a black sweater in the middle.
In addition, there were sixteen other passengers aboard from all over the world with a concentration of Europeans, but also a wonderful younger couple from Singapore who ‘adopted’ us and spent most of their time as part of our group.
The boat itself was perfect for river transit. Named the Pandaw 2, she is about 200 feet long with a draft of about 5 feet, and was built in 2001 in Yangon. In layout and looks she is almost identical to one of those 19th century river boats that were part of The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company which controlled much of the transportation on the SE Asian rivers. When they sunk all of their boats rather than give them up to the Japanese in WW II, they had over 600 vessels in operation.
Propulsion was from two 700 horsepower diesel engines, with a very unusual drive system. Rather than a single propeller on a shaft from each engine which could be reversed, each engine had a vertical shaft which carried the power over the stern above the waterline. They could then be rotated 360 degrees and thus if rotated 180 degrees the power was in a reverse direction.
She carried a crew of twenty-two, and with a total of only thirty passengers aboard, we certainly got all the attention we could hope for. Here is a look at ten of them, with the kitchen brigade closest and the Captain at the very end. And by the way, the food was endless, diverse, and wonderful with lots of Burmese delights included at every meal.
Our room was lined in beautiful varnished teak and came with comfortable beds and a full bathroom complete with a shower and tons of hot water.
Most of our time aboard, while not sleeping, was spent on the upper or sundeck, outfitted with a broad canopy for shade and lots of very comfortable lounge chairs and tables. It also featured an open bar from about four in the afternoon every day, a blessing after excursions ashore in the 90 degree heat.
Bonnie was up topside by 6:15 each morning with the sunrise doing yoga, while Dave had his first cup of coffee and a chance to wake up reading the news in the best place for wifi. The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular as well.
The standard schedule on board was to travel upriver each morning or afternoon, with at least one shore excursion each day, often two in different villages. Most of the time while underway was spent on the sundeck with dramatic views, a wonderful panorama of rural life in Myanmar.
By sunset we were always tied up to shore and secure for the night, as travel in the dark with shifting sandbars constantly changing would be perilous and even dangerous.
The river certainly varied in its width and depth, and over the course of each year changes rather dramatically, particularly during the rainy season (May to October) when it would swell often to two or three times its dry width. We had a series of pilots come on board who each directed the ship through a particular stretch of the river they knew intimately. Nevertheless there were at least three occasions when we temporarily ran aground, but were able to reverse off of the sand bottom and proceed on our journey. While the river itself might be two miles wide, the safe shipping channel frequently consisted of only fifty feet of water at sufficient depth.
An endlessly common sight from the river were temples, called ‘pagodas’ or ‘stupas’, almost always topped with gold leaf and shining brightly in the sunlight. They were such a feature of the country that we will have a separate posting about them.
And while it was not often, we sometimes even saw farming going on, usually with manual labor providing whatever irrigation was available. Note the women carrying water from the river and the men in the field watering much as you might a small flower garden.
We also saw farmers at work in what was clearly the floodplain of the river. Note in the photo below that the true bank of the river is in the background with vegetation growing on it, while the farmer is plowing with oxen in the silt left from the prior rainy season’s flooding. Oh, by the way, those are early morning hot air balloons above the monumental temple ruins at Bagan, But more about Bagan in a subsequent posting.
More common were families in fishing encampments where they built small dwellings of tarps. One had to assume that their very existence is close to marginal, based only on what they can catch in the river.
Another common riverside sight was women washing clothes, usually by pounding them on broad rocks set into the shallow water. Often they used short, flat clubs to beat the clothes, and the sound of their slapping could be heard from far out on the boat. It is clear from their shaved heads and clothing that the two girls on the left are Buddhist nuns.
But probably everyone’s favorite riverside sight was young kids and adults bathing and frolicking in the river late in the afternoon. We saw it over and over and it was always a delight.
When we reached more urban settlements, as with Amarapura near Mandalay, we often saw other riverboats much like our own,
and more ‘native’ ferries like the one on the left, and industrial vessels like the one on the right. The white boat behind is a river tugboat. We saw many of these pushing barges up and down the river and filled with everything from gravel and sand to teak and even asphalt recycled to build new roads to the north.
Better yet, here is a movie of what that particular mooring was like ashore, including a woman washing clothes, the monastery school for children and the pagoda itself where we actually departed the Pandaw 2 for the final time.
A totally unexpected highlight of the trip took place right before its end on an isolated floodplain of sand somewhere north of Mandalay. Bonnie went ashore early and had to perform a little magic with the camera on her iPhone, doubling herself as she danced around.
Then all the deck chairs were carried off the boat and circled around a giant fire pit. A barbeque and bar were set up, and the entire area and path from the gangplank to the fire circle was lined with what are called farolitos in Santa Fe—small paper bags with candles burning inside.
It was a fabulous way to end the trip, and included singing and dancing into the wee hours!
Don’t go away yet! We have several postings to follow on the life and people of Myanmar that you will enjoy, so please stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!