Living the Dream

Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
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Trip End Sep 08, 2012


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Where I stayed
Aung Mingalar Guesthouse

Flag of Myanmar  , Mandalay,
Thursday, February 16, 2012

Before we left Norwich, back when we were still planning this epic journey, Sheila dreamily researched possible destinations in our guide books. While I was still digesting what Russia might be like, she was reading aloud to me about where we might go in Burma. This seemed so far away, so remote, that I couldn't really comprehend us being there. She read about a boat journey that can be made along Burma's main arterial river - the Arrawaddy (Irrawaddy). "We haven't even left England yet Sheila," I said to her, "and you already have us going down the bloody Arrawaddy!" It became a euphemism for seemingly impossible things that we may do in the future.

Fast forward 6 months and here we are, at 4.30am, standing on the river bank looking down at the old ferry boat that will indeed take us "down the bloody Arrawaddy". The fact that it is also the halfway point in our journey also adds to the magnitude of the occassion. We left the Royal Guesthouse a few minutes earlier and where driven in a tiny pick-up taxi through the quiet, dark streets of Mandalay to the 'quayside' which is no more that a few steps carved into the muddy bank and a gangplank that provides access to a floating barge, against which the ferry is moored. There are quite a few other westerners also boarding the ferry, mainly a tour group of Italians with wheely suitcases and dressed in smart leisure wear.

The ferry is a double decker vessel with open sides, the bottom deck is mainly for cargo and local people who appear to have camped on board overnight. The top deck is also crowded with locals who lie sleeping all over the wooden deck. Toward the bow end there are lots of low plastic chairs which seem to be reserved exclusively for us westies. Actually, Asian people tend to shun chairs in favour of squatting or sitting cross-legged on the ground so we feel no guilt in taking the comfy seats. Sheila and I position ourselves on the side that will face the rising sun, our chairs are right in front of the railing so we can put our feet up and admire the view.

At 5.30am, the ship's horn blasts out and we are underway. It's still dark and quite cool so we are rugged up as much as our meagre supply of cold weather gear will allow. The locals meanwhile, are huddled under rugs in family groups. As dawn breaks, so the ship wakes up. Soon food sellers are roaming about with snacks, fruit and drinks. At the stern there is a quaint little cafe where we can buy coffee, eggs on toast, fried rice, noodles or curries. We settle for coffee at this stage. The boat slowly moves down the wide brown waterway as the sun peaks over the eastern skyline. Ocassional Zedi poke above the palm trees and small boats add to the scenery.

It's very sociable on board as we are all jammed together on the plastic seats. Our neighbours are a German man, his daughter and her boyfriend. We get chatting with the father, Peter, and learn that he is in a German Irish band, a bit similar to the bands I play in, except for the German bit. This will be the pace of our day, a slow drift down the river, chatting, snacking, reading, dozing, taking photographs and absorbing the fact that we are really here.

The highlight of this boat journey repeats itself several times - stopping at villages along the way. Each one is different, yet the scene is the same - crowds of local villagers come out to the riverbank to welcome the twice weekly ferry. People disembark and others climb on board along the narrow gang plank. People stand on the shore waving and shouting "mingalaba" to us enthralled tourists. At one such stop, women wade into the shallows and toss bunches of bananas up to customers on the deck who throw their money down in payment. Each stop is a scene of chaos, of joy, of shouting and waving. At the second stop we spot a young boy on the bank who has also spotted us. Sheila is busy applying sunblock to her legs and the boy is grinning madly while he copies her actions. I notice a couple of western passengers have got off the ferry and are photgraphing from the shore, so I run down the stairs and cross the plank to the bank for a couple of quick snaps. At the same time the young boy runs onto the ship and comes up to Sheila and asks for some sun block too. She reckons he is so cute that she could easily take him home with us. When the ships horn blasts out people scurry back onto or off the boat before it pulls away from the bank.

At another stop, much later in the day, the scene is amost biblical in its antiquity. Ox carts slowly approach the river through swirls of dust while longhi clad men squat on the sand chewing betel. There is much activity on board at this village as many people leave. There is also a lot of cargo unloaded and carried up to the ox carts. The crowds, the carts, stacks of clay pots, the noise the dust - it is truly a vision from another time.So the time passes.

The upper deck crowd thins out and by late afternoon we have as much space as we like to lounge about. The lady vendors have kept us amused throughout the journey, one, Dara, has even given Sheila a massage in the small room at the bow, this is in response to the pair of glasses (thanks again Shaz) that Sheila had given her. The massage however wasn't a gift and we had to pay for it, though not reluctantly, these people are industrious but poor and deserve a bit of our tourist cash for their efforts.The sun begins to set over the Arrawaddy, casting a pink hue across the vista.

Just after 7.30, 14 hours after we set sail from Mandalay, we dock against another ferry at Naung U township, in the UNESCO World Heritage area that is Bagan.We gather our bags and pile off onto dry land. There is a man with our names on a sign waiting for us. He leads us up to a small office where we must show our passports, register and pay the $10 per head admission fee. Then it's into a horse and cart for the finally leg of the journey, to our guesthouse, The Aung Mingala. We check in and are soon sitting at a cafe down the road, supping cold beers and reliving the dreamlike experience of riding the slow boat down the Arrawaddy.
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Comments

Peter Fink on

Thanks for the Photos from our boattrip to Bagan. I´m very proud to find my name in your travel bloc. All the best wishes for the further trip
peter the irishman from germany

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