Taking the slow boat to Bagan
14.08.2011 - 14.08.2011 29 °C
Mandalay to Bagan, Myanmar
In the pre-dawn darkness the wide Ayeyarwady river shimmered black , like a sleeping eel, as it snaked through both the geographic centre and cultural soul of Myanmar. A nine hour cruise to Bagan would take us along this romantic river, so favored by poets and writers. Our companions on this journey would all be western tourists, mostly French and German. This was not a ferry for locals but a fast Express ferry offering the relative comfort of air conditioning below deck and wicker chairs to relax in upon the observation deck - the latter being our preferred seating area for the voyage.
As we cast off from the quayside at Mandalay, the sun beginning to rise, a wide variety of passenger ferries and cargo vessels could be seen moored against the shore line. Turning south the golden stupas, perched sporadically across a hilly backdrop , of Sagaing became readily visible. Cruising past, clearly not all of the towns 500 stupas were visible. Yet even their limited appearance provided great activity amongst the many photographers on board, with golden hill tops, their summits reached by covered walkways carved into the hillside, easy to observe. Crossing under the metal arched Ava bridge it was with some sadness that we would have to leave exploration of this fascinating area to another trip.
Passing Sagaing the remainder of our journey would see us pass low lying rice paddy fields and small scale cattle farms. Sporadically, small bamboo formed villages would appear with locals, adults and children shouting their hellos and those on our observation deck offering reciprocal waves. As with drivers in Mandalay every passing boat, whilst relatively few, would signal their friendship. Smaller canoes and sailing boats would pass by with waving passengers. On cargo vessels decks hands would offer two arm waves. When almost alone on our observation deck, at one point, I waved at the captain of a passing rice barge to have my greeting returned with a sharp, friendly blast on the ships horn. It was that sort of river.
Throughout our journey the hot equatorial sun beat down forcing many short term vacation passengers, without suntans, below. Those staying gradually turning pink in the heat of the sun. Fascinated by the picture of river life passing by we remained on deck, watching locals use the water of the river to wash themselves and their clothes, provide fish to cook and as a means of transportation. Adapted to this environment their simple lives were far distant from those we had experienced in Mandalay.
Our only brief stop en route to Bagan was at Myinmu, to pick up a couple of western tourists. Locals hurried into the river, waste deep, to sell their wares of fresh mango, papaya and melon. Thrown fruit being exchanged for similarly thrown paper money.
This interaction with locals over we returned to our gentle downstream cruise. A makeshift lunch partaken, reminiscent of our time on the Trans-Siberian, the plain of Bagan, soon hove into view. The first sight of the red brick temples of Bagan broke the general malaise that had transcended the ship. A near desolate observation deck awoke to the familiar click of digital cameras. Returning to Bagan I knew from previous experience how much camera time the photogenic Temples of Bagan can illicit. With some temples balanced on the very edge of the high cliffs that now marked the edge of the river we were soon docking at Old Bagan.
Bags collected a veritable throng of taxi, trishaw and horse cart drivers descended demanding their quickly augmented fares for journeys across the plains. Using the usually successful technique of ignoring their entreaties and heading towards the main road, on foot, we were soon approached by a horse cart driver demanding a much more reasonable fare. Bags loaded it would take some thirty minutes, bouncing and jerking once again, to reach our hotel. Passing many of the more famous temples this simple journey provided a visual taste of the spectacle that we were to explore tomorrow.
After a dust removing swim supper was found on the edge of the mighty river that transported us from Mandalay. With darkness now once again descended, moonlight casting a slivery glow across the water, it is easy to imagine why this fabled river projects the very soul of this often troubled land.