On a Slow Boat down the Irrawaddy River
by Jim Johnston

Navigating the river from Mandalay to the temple city of Bagan is easier than navigating the thorny issue of traveling in a country where the rulers are self-enriching oppressors, but the regular people are glad you are there. Jim Johnston surveys it all from a $2 plastic deck chair.

It's 5am and the dusty streets of Mandalay are still dark, a few noodle stands just opening are the only signs of life. Our taxi reaches the riverside, where shadowy forms bustle about in the dim glow of bare light bulbs. Still sleepy, I take my cue from the men loading baskets of produce onto the boat, carefully walking up the gangplank, my suitcase balanced on my head. We're sailing to Bagan, Myanmar's fabled tourist–mecca of thousands of Buddhist temples, fifteen hours downstream.

There's a faster (9 hours) boat from Mandalay to Bagan, but due to the lack of tourists, it wasn't sailing. Grim news about repressive government actions, a devastating cyclone, the closing of the airport in Bangkok, and a fragile world economy have decimated tourism in Myanmar recently. It was a perfect time to be there.

Foreigners—all 18 of us—are corralled into plastic chairs near the boat rail (it turns out we'd paid a premium of $2 for the luxury of a chair). The hundred or so other passengers quickly settle in, snuggling under blankets with their various bundles, filling the deck with baskets of live chickens, a few bicycles, and two very well–behaved pigs.

I stare into the darkness, wishing I'd bought a blanket for the trip. I thought Myanmar would be hot and humid everywhere, but in mid–December the nights are chilly. I buy a cup of a sweet brown beverage they call coffee to warm my hands. Drowsy and cold, I ponder the next fifteen hours and think about backaches and boredom.

But soon after leaving the shores of Mandalay, the sun rises, striking the steeple of a gold–leafed pagoda in the distance. I feel the smile of Buddha and begin to warm up. The slow, almost silent movement of the boat has a hypnotically calming effect. Passing images of far–off temples, simple bamboo houses, and dugout canoes seem to be from another era. By the time we reach our first stop my sense of time has altered completely. I could stay here forever.

Two cultures in transit
On–board people watching is just as interesting as the landscape. Most Burmese men and women wear longyis, long skirt–like tubes of fabric knotted in front. It's rare, even in cities, to see footwear other than sandals, usually rubber flip–flops. Many women wear lengths of cloth (often towels) wrapped, turban–like, around their heads. The most distinctive feature of Burmese fashion, however, is the prevalent use of thanaka, a pale yellow paste, made from ground tree bark, that is put on the face. Part make–up, part sun block, the creamy ointment is applied in a variety of ways, often as square patches or the impression of a leaf on the cheeks, or a single dot on the nose. Other times it's just smeared across the face in haphazard fashion. A feature of life here for the past 2000 years, the use of thanaka is one of the most striking visual images in Myanmar.

Aside from the locals, our fellow passengers are several French, British and German tourists, a young Japanese man who spends the whole journey behind his camera lens, and Svetlana, a gregarious 28–year blond from Moscow who'd quit her office job to travel the world for a year. There are no Americans.

I notice how odd we foreigners look compared to the Burmese passengers: short pants, sneakers, backpacks, water bottles, and guidebooks to tell us where we are. The only common item is the baseball cap.

My Burmese doesn't go much beyond min galaba (good day) and chezu beh (thank you), but people here are eager to greet foreigners, and become positively giddy at having their picture taken. While conversation is limited, walking around the wooden decks of the 2–tiered ferry and just sitting, laughing with the Burmese passengers is one of the trip's pleasures—we seem to be an endless source of amusement to them. Reading, dozing, eating and chatting with the foreigners (it's remarkable how English has become the Esperanto of the 21st century) fill the time as the boat makes its way downstream. But the real fun starts when we pull into port.

The boat makes six stops along the way. My map is filled with exotic–sounding names: Sagaing, Myinyan, Ngazun, Myinmu, Sagyu and Pakokku. The villages are hidden beyond the shoreline on higher ground, safe from the rising waters of the rainy season. What we see are white sand beaches filled with people waiting, an ox–cart or two, sometimes a few small shelters made of woven bamboo. The energy of the crowd and the stares of children tell us that the arrival of the boat is a big event.

At each stop, boatmen jump into the water at the river's edge and pull two wooden planks out to reach the dry land. People hurry off toting bundles of fruits and vegetables, fabric, household items, and flowers, in quantities that suggest they're supplying nearby markets. When the last person disembarks, a mad rush of vendors storm up the gangplank, fanning out on both decks, eagerly pressing their wares on the passengers. Bananas, watermelon, papayas, apples and oranges, fried samosas, sticky rice cakes and fresh corn on the cob are all carefully balanced in flat round baskets on their heads. With less than 15 minutes to make a sale, and five days until the boat returns on its upstream voyage, the selling is aggressive and noisy, with lots of laughter and hand gestures.

Most people walk off into the distance carrying bundles on their heads. But at each stop one or two simple wooden ox–drawn carts are waiting to carry important loads (the pigs and a red–robed monk get a lift). Trade and commerce still operate here as they have since boats and wheels were invented. I ponder my carbon footprint as I watch.

The Dark Side
The temptation to see Myanmar's rural life in idyllic terms, where Buddhist "loving kindness" trumps all, is quickly confronted by the reality of a military dictatorship that has essentially brought the country to its knees. British–ruled Burma was once one of the wealthiest countries in southeast Asia. Today, the Union of Myanmar is one of the poorest places in the world, with a median annual income of around $1500 a year. A horse cart driver who later took us around the temples of Bagan earns $12 a day, most of which goes to the owner of his buggy.

A young couple from the hotel in Mandalay show up on the boat. Derek is a Canadian aid worker living in Yangon, and his Belgian wife Marie is a nurse. He shares a few stories about conditions in the Irrawaddy delta region which was devastated by cyclone Nargis in May of 2008. Estimates of the dead reach 150,000 and millions more were left homeless. The government's negligent response made world headlines, and foreign relief efforts have received little help from the military junta.

"One of the worst problems now is the lack of clean water," Derek says. "The large ceramic jugs used to collect rain water were all shattered. They cost around $20 US to replace—a fortune in these areas. From subsistence farming, a family might earn enough to travel four hours to buy clean water. With luck it will last them until they can earn enough to make the trip all over again. The cycle of misery in the delta is overwhelming."

It's dark again when we arrive at Nuang U, the port of Bagan. The boat sidles up to a wooden dock where the remaining passengers (more foreigners than Burmese at this point) gather up their luggage. A group of a dozen or so young men are waiting for us. As the boat touches the dock all of them make a kangaroo leap over the railing, reaching for the bags, eager to earn a few kyat carrying travelers' suitcases.

The scene is dark and chaotic, porters jumping about, taxi drivers calling out for a fare, government agents stopping each foreigner and demanding the $10 "entry fee" to the archeological zone of Bagan. Luckily we'd called ahead to our little guest house, so a driver is waiting for us with a sign. Noticing the alarm in her face, we take our new friend Svetlana under our wing. "Come with us, we'll find you a room."

The long ride is over, but the motion of the boat is etched into our bones. The twenty–minute ride to our hotel feels like floating on another body of water. Dark silhouettes of bell–shaped temples stand out against the night sky, their points reaching upward like waves in the sea. A few are illuminated, their golden surfaces dazzling in so much blackness.

We've reached our destination, Bagan, an Oz–like fantasy world of Buddhist worship, witness to more than a thousand years of history, the most sacred spot in Burma. Myriad structures dot the landscape over an area of many square miles, soaring over the acacia trees, reaching skyward like the wai of joined palms that had greeted us all over the country. A sense of peace and beauty prevail and we watch in silence.

Travel to Myanmar poses an ethical dilemma. Many countries, organizations and individuals (including pro–democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi) have called for a boycott of the country. Lonely Planet, publisher of a fine guide to Myanmar, has a forum on the topic accessible online (www.lonelyplanet.com), and they suggest ways to avoid having your travel dollars end up in the government's hands. Seeing so many people—taxi drivers, porters, restaurant and hotel workers, tour guides, souvenir sellers, horse cart drivers—practically begging for a chance to work and earn money, convinced me that travel to Myanmar is a good thing.

If you go: Yangon Air and Air Mandalay fly from Yangon to Mandalay for $90 one–way. The slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan sails on Wednesdays and Sundays at 5:30am. Ask at your hotel for tickets ($12 US with a plastic seat). Excellent travel information is available through www.myanmargoodnewstravel.com, a Yangon–based travel agency.

Jim Johnston, artist and writer, is author of Mexico City: an Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. He's written articles for the Christian Science Monitor and The News (Mexico City) on food, travel, vampires and opera. He lives in Mexico City and writes about it at www.mexicocitydf.blogspot.com

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