Travel

On the river to Mandalay

Golden temples are a feature throughout Myanmar, where the people are devout Buddhists.
Golden temples are a feature throughout Myanmar, where the people are devout Buddhists.

TODAY is a big day for 10-year-old San Aung and his mates from Mingun village on the Irrawaddy River, just north of Mandalay in Burma.

In a ritual followed by most boys and young men in this mostly-Buddhist nation, now known as Myanmar, they are taking their first tentative steps toward a life following the Buddhist tradition.

For some days, even weeks, they will live the lives of monks. They will dress in the orange robes of monks and they will take their empty food bowls into the villages for handouts.

We've stumbled on the shinbyu celebration, unchanged for centuries, as we sail north upstream on the great Irrawaddy River - Rudyard Kipling's Road To Mandalay - from Prome to Katha where the river gets too shallow for our cruise boat to go further.

Our home for two weeks is the RV Katha Pandaw. Built in the style of many ships which filled the river more than half a century ago, it carries 32 passengers in modest luxury, stopping at least a couple of times a day to let us ashore to explore villages and temples.

At Mingun, we have found a slice of village life that is not just for tourists.

It's for real.

In a lavish procession, San Aung has pride of place atop an elephant.

He has won the privileged place because his father has paid for the procession - and the seven-day celebration which precedes it.

The river is definitely the way to go to avoid uncomfortable roads and to find remote villages as well as see major cities such as Bagan and Mandalay. Our cruise is actually an expedition - the stops at the scattered villages being determined by the river and water levels. When we add the 300km by road from Yangon to Prome to join the cruise and end in Mandalay, we will have covered nearly half the 2000km of the river which rises in the foothills of the Himalayas, runs the length of Myanmar and empties into the Andaman Sea.

Cabins, furnished in teak and brass, are spacious and comfortable.

Meals are on a covered, open-sided deck which can be cool at breakfast and dinner times, but ideal for a gin and tonic at the end of another day of shore excursions.

Sometimes we trail through some of Myanmar's interminable pagodas - temples and stupas. Their golden, bell-shaped domes and spires pierce the jungle. At other times, we do a conga line through a remote village unreachable by any road. Sometimes we stroll through a busy marketplace and inhale the heady aroma of everything from spices to fruit and vegetables, fish to poultry. And, of course, rice. A devout and gentle people, they seem informal, carefree, contented, and overpoweringly friendly. There are few begging hands stretched out to us and except in the tourist meccas of, say, Bagan, there are no hawkers.

Burma is a place with a rich and complex history. British ruled for nearly a century. Then the Japanese invaded and occupied. Then followed decades of civil war. Now, lost in time and quietly isolated since 1962 under a military dictatorship, with a do-not-disturb sign on the door, Myanmar is unsullied, as yet, by tourism and western values, unlike neighbouring China, Thailand, India and Vietnam. You won't find an ATM anywhere in Myanmar.

Nor will you be able to make a call to the outside world. And they don't take credit cards.

Life is simple. Fields are ploughed by oxen; ox carts are the main means of transport; rice is threshed by hand; and few villages have running water or electricity. And the roads are mostly hand-made.

Little wonder, therefore, that the Irrawaddy is a river highway.

Sometimes it is just 250m across but, at other times, kilometres wide. It gives Myanmar its life.

The river carries great barges loaded with teak logs and huge rafts of bamboo; a blunt-ended 1950s ferry carries passengers and their produce; and cargo boats carry everything else … all headed for markets downstream. Once Myanmar, as Burma, was the world's largest exporter of rice. Not now. Today's economy is based on exports of jade (to China), gold and rubies.

So the river is less busy today than in its heyday when hundreds of passenger ships of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company - carrying up to eight million passengers a year - and cargo ships made it a heaving highway.

Our northern limit is Katha, the setting for George Orwell's anti-colonial novel Burmese Days. We, of course, visit the now-shabby and deserted tennis club, clubhouse, polo ground (now rice paddies) and the police officer house which provided the settings for Orwell's 1930s book.

We pass the confluence of the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers as we near Mandalay where we are disappointed we don't see Kipling's dawn coming up "like thunder outer China 'crost the bay". Did Kipling get his compass points wrong?

Myanmar is a fascinating destination. Go there before a rush of tourists discovers it.

The writer was a guest of Pandaw Cruises.

>> Read more travel stories.

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