We just returned from four fantastic days cruising the Irrawaddy River. The memories will be forever ingrained in our minds and this part of the journey along with the few days previous has convinced us 100% that we will return to this beautiful country much sooner than later. It is tough to figure out exactly where to start but I’ll do my best.
As mentioned earlier we were able to secure a private river boat for 3 nights and 4 full days. We were greeted at the boat jetty (the river bank) in Mandalay by a wonderful fellow named Aung who introduced himself as our tour guide and who later turned out to be the boat owner. (Much more about Aung later). Upon boarding his boat, a 64 foot wooden boat with two sleeping cabins, we were introduced to his staff. We were expecting a staff of 4 but no, we had the Boat Pilot, the Boat Manager, two Assistants to the Manager, one Chef with two assistants and our guide Aung for a total of 8 people looking after us. It made me wonder what kind of lies Joyce told the travel agent about us? This wasn’t a 2:1 ratio but 4:1! Unheard of on even the best cruise lines in the world albeit the boat wasn’t a luxury liner but it was perfect and comfortable and clean and had a quiet 110 HP diesel engine.
We departed Mandalay at about 10:30 am and set our course upstream to the Village of Kyaugh Myoung, about 80 km’s north of Mandalay. This was about a 7 hour journey against a current of probably about 4 knots. Kyaugh Myoumg is a small village noted for it’s pottery production and the plan was to overnight along the river bank and then visit the village first thing the next morning before heading back south downstream. On the journey we had a five course lunch consisting of the most tasty pure ethnic Burmese cooking you can find anywhere and it set the stage for the rest of our journey. Dinner was just as fabulous, the beer was cold too and being in the company of Aung, with his knowledge and passion for his country and his success so far as a young man with small business made the evening conversation extremely interesting and exciting to see the changes happening in this young democracy.
The mud or clay along some parts of the Irrawaddy has a quality and pureness that allows for the making of pottery. In the village of Kyaugh Myoung they have this clay and the village produces thousands of hand-made clay pots that are sold worldwide. The production of the pots is centralized and run by a few companies but employs many of the villagers who are not farming so there seems to be work for all.
The early mornings in this area are cool but the day heats up quickly so our wanderings around the village was relatively sweat free. Next stop was the village of Hin-Tharbo and this was a very cool experience. Aung had been told that this village was celebrating the 3rd and last day of a festival celebrating the entry of a families’ youngest son or daughter’s entry into a Buddhist monastery for one week, month or year. The men were preparing a feast while the village waited delivery of a sound system and elephant costume that would be used for the elephant dance that evening. The elephant weighs 100 lbs and is worn by four men who must dance in unison, similar to a dragon dance. As it turns out we arrived on the 1st day of the celebrations but upon our entry into the village everything came to a complete standstill. Adults and children started to gather around us and stare, children were confused by our presence and couldn’t take their eyes off of us or would turn their heads and cry if we looked at them and smiled. Now we found this a little hard to believe but we were told this village has never seen a white foreigner except in movies. We were the very first foreigners to visit their village. This was not a village on the tourist map. There is really nothing to see here so tourist boats don’t make a stop, especially larger boats which can’t moor on the shoreline so no one stops here. We were the first. We still find this a little hard to believe but we were assured this is the case. It sure seemed like they hadn’t seen anyone like us and the welcome mat they put before us of food and snacks and curious staring eyes makes us believe this is true. An absolutely wonderful experience! Full credit goes to Aung. He has his Boat Pilot and Manager call villages and their contacts along our way to find out if anything interesting is happening. As it turns out, this was only the first of a couple of great experiences along our journey.
The Irrawaddy River is home to the very threatened Irrawaddy Dolphin. There are three fresh water dolphins in the world. The Pink and White dolphins that live in the Amazon River (I have been fortunate to see both), and the Irrawaddy dolphin which exists in Myanmar and to a small extent into Cambodia. (Joyce and I had glimpses of them in Cambodia several years ago). We arranged to meet some fishermen who work with the dolphins in a symbiotic sort of fashion. It works like this. The fishermen have a piece of serrated wood that when rubbed along the side of their boat makes a unique sound. The dolphins have learned that this sound means a free lunch but only if they herd/scare fish into the fishermen’s nets. The fishermen will then throw fish to the dolphins as a reward for their catch. Each fisherman has a unique sound that is created from their serrated wooden stick so each has their own dolphin(s) to help them. Genius, but this day was different and our luck was continuing to be on our side. As we got nearer to our meeting point with the fishermen we came across a pod of at least 10 dolphins. Our ship Manager made a call to the fisherman to tell them our location and as we waited we were entertained by the largest pod of dolphins any of the crew had seen at one time. They estimate there are fewer than a few hundred dolphins in the whole river and to see 10-12 in one area was a sight to behold and also a proud moment for the crew because they are seeing the fruition of the work being done to protect these beautiful mammals. They realize the importance of protecting this national treasure. So the fishermen showed up, we boarded their long slim canoes and we puttered around trying to follow the dolphins. They made their wood sounds and some vocal noises but we came just as close to them as we would have if we just stayed on our boat and saved several dollars. You never know what you will see, there is no guarantee, but we lucked out big time.
The final stop for the day was the village of Mingoun. Once we moored along the riverbank we hiked up the bank and wandered through fields full of peanuts. Peanuts are widely grown throughout the region and you see them spread out over the ground in the sun to dry before they are put into a separator to separate the nuts from the shells. Also evident along much of the banks of the river in the villages we’ve visited are large bamboo cages which the locals are in the process of adding rocks into the separate compartments. The riverbanks are eroding and this is a preventative measure to stop/slow the what nature will do regardless but has been influenced by river damming upstream in China. The natural flow is no longer natural.
We walked along dusty streets to the first ruins of what was once a very large and ornately plaster decorated lion that had unfortunately been pretty well completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1839.
Following along the road we reached the “Unfinished Pagoda”. Mingun Pahtodawgyi is an immense pagoda that began construction in 1790 but was unfinished due to an astrologer claiming that if completed, the King Bodawpaya who commissioned its construction would die. It would have been the largest in the world but as luck would have it, the king died a year later anyway. Along the way to the pagoda Aung explained that there was still a lot of treasure within the inner sanctum of the pagoda. Apparently there was 7 cats filled with gold, 3 cats filled with silver and 1 cat filled with diamonds. Joyce and I both looked at each other trying to imagine stuffing cats with gold, silver and diamonds and that really wasn’t a very large fortune and using cats seemed odd. We continued on and then Aung mentioned the cats again. This time in a different context and then it hit us. It wasn’t cats but carts! Another lost in translation moment and one that we and Aung found particularity funny. We had a very good laugh.
Nearby lies another fine example of Burmese architecture. The beautiful white Hsinbyume Pagoda modelled after the mythical Mount Meru, built in 1816 by Bodawpaya”s grandson.
The area also boasts the largest operable bell in the world and this was also cast by the King to go with his huge stupa. The Mingun Bell weighs 90 tons and is today the largest ringing bell in the world.
Finally on our way back to our boat where we would spend the night moored along the banks we came across five men playing Chinlone, the traditional national sport of Myanmar. It is much like hacky sack in the west but the ball is larger and made of bamboo. The the feet-to-eye coordination was a sight to behold.
Our third day was spent visiting the village of Inwa and Lakapin with a final stop for the night along a large sandbar where we went for a cool dip in the Irrawaddy and drank wine and beer in front of a large bonfire on the soft sandbank that looked much like the desert landscape of the salt pans in Botswana.
Inwa is an ancient city not far from Mandalay and is known for religious structures left over from several reigns as the nation’s capital from the 14th to 19th century. The main feature dominating the area is the Bagaya Kyaung, a 19th century working monastery made of teak. We hired a horse cart to take us around the area. It was bloody hot outside!
Hopping back into the horse carriage we bumped along to Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan Monastery. Alternately and more well-known as the Brick Monastery it was built in 1818 by Nanmadaw Me Nu, the Chief Queen of King Bagyidaw. Counted as among the finest brick buildings adorned with stucco and flora, the monastery was destroyed by the earthquake of 1839 but was reconstructed and repaired in 1873. As is the case with most Burmese monasteries, two giant guardian lions welcome you at the entrance. The reason this monastery stands out is it was made with brick when in those days it was customary to build wooden monasteries. The Queen was not a nice lady. Built below the monastery is a labyrinth of very low ceiling arches with sharp bricks extending outwards from the top. If you were on her bad list she would force you to go below and then set irate lions free to chase the poor sap through the passage ways. It was next to impossible to run through these as the ceilings were very low so it didn’t take long for Leo to get his breakfast!
We boarded the “Queen of the Irrawaddy” and set sail for Lakapin where we planned on visiting a village that makes straw hats. Earlier on our second day we visited Hin-Tharbo where we were expecting to see the third and final day of the celebration of the young monks entering the monastery but it turned out to be the first day. When we arrived at Hin-Tharbo we were told most of the families who make hats weren’t making hats today because they were attending the third day of celebrations of monkdom entryhood so we lucked out. We did see a lot of straw hats and Aung was able to get one women to show us a little of the hat making process but the high-lite was the celebration where we were greeted with open arms, fed an interesting concoction of nuts, greens, chilis and assorted unknown veggies and treated to a custom that goes back many centuries.
The original plan was to continue on to the village of Yadabo where we would spend the night and then visit the village. It was getting later in the afternoon so we decided to stop at a very large sandbar to spend the night and catch the sunset. This was truly a high-lite of our trip in Myanmar and our whole adventure to date. The Irrawaddy River level is low this time of year exposing miles and miles of sand bars and sandy shores. We moored the boat and the deck hands brought chairs and a table out onto the sand. Cold beer and wine was at the ready and we sat in total peace and quiet on a beach the size of, I don’t know, you couldn’t really see the end of it, and watched the end of the day set into the distant haze over the river. It was dark now and we really needed to have a shower after the dusty hot trips we made earlier in the day and the cool river flowing by us was too much to ignore so we donned our bathing suits and plunged into the river for a very refreshing bath. A fantastic way to end another fantastic day! After drying off we made our way back to our beach chairs. By this time the guys had built a huge bonfire. We put on some JJ Cale tunes on my blue tooth speaker and sat in awe at the experience we were having. It was awesome. We of course had to have dinner so around 8:30 pm we walked the plank back onto the boat and were again treated to the best Burmese food imaginable. Joyce was pooped by now so she retired and Aung and I gathered a few more cool ones and sat on the beach, kept the fire stoked and chatted about everything under the full moon. This was February 28th and the full moon was actually March 1st so close enough. Magical!
Our final day damn it! We didn’t want this end but next time will be 5 days or maybe more. We proceeded down river to the village of Yadabo where the only industry is pottery making. Nothing else. Every household makes pottery and they make it only for Myanmar. Every household in Myanmar has at least four pots that they use for water and every pot has to be replaced every April so the demand is huge. All hand-made and all very similar but it keeps them busy year round.
Back on the river we came across several boats set up to pump and sift the sand for fine particles of gold.
Our last stop before ending our journey was the village of Pakokku. We hired a tuk tuk and drove to a textile workshop followed by a short visit to see how they make Thanakha, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark which most people, men and women, were daily and has been in use for over 2,000 years. It gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn and is also believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin as well as acts as an anti-fungal. Finally, a quick hello to a cigarette making lady on the side of the road. We were told she will hand-roll up to 4,000 cigs a day. Pretty impressive.
We departed Pakokku and made our last and final stop in Bagan where we bid farewell to Aung and our wonderful crew promising we would return. Thank you to everyone on board. We left filled with great memories of our journey on the Irrawaddy River.