Messages From Myanmar #24
01 January 2017
Hello there, Rodger French here.
Photo Update Alert:
The Irrawaddy River flows through Myanmar from north to south for a distance of some 2170 km (1348 mi). It is the country’s most important waterway and one of the world’s great rivers. It is wide, shallow, and treacherous to navigate. It is also “The Road to Mandalay,” an epithet bestowed by Rudyard Kipling, poet and noted mad Englishman.
At one time The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) operated several hundred vessels on the river, the largest fleet of riverboats in the world. Many of these came from Scotland, where they were built, then disassembled and shipped to Burma (a riverboat with a three-foot draft is not meant for the open sea), and subsequently reassembled in Rangoon.
The fleet moved freight, primarily natural resources from the north and manufactured goods from the south, as well as passengers intent on business and tourism. Sadly, the flotilla was largely scuttled in 1943 in order to keep the boats out of the hands of the Japanese army. But the river, and commerce, flowed on.
Since A.J. and I had never been on a river excursion, we decided to take a cruise on the mighty Irrawaddy to see Mandalay and Bagan. It was pretty epic.
[Visitor Sidebar - We were joined by our friend H, who has visited us twice before in exotic locales.]
We spent seven nights aboard a faithful reproduction of the IFC P.S. (Packet Steamer) Kalaw, a well-appointed and very comfortable boat. Passengers came and went, and we averaged a small but convivial company of 14 along with a crew compliment of about the same. The staff could not have been nicer, and both our Purser and Tour Guide kept us well informed and squared away. That said, cue the highlight reel.
Architecture - A few definitions are in order. Temple: A place of worship for the followers of Buddhism. (Always remove your shoes.) Pagoda: Buddhist temple, typically in the form of a multi-tiered tower. Stupa: A dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine. (One cannot actually enter a stupa.) In central Myanmar, these structures number in the thousands and we visited a slew of ‘em in Mandalay, Mingun, Sagaing, Innwa (home of the world famous U Bein footbridge), Pakokku, and especially…
Bagan - A 42 sq km World Heritage Site and home to roughly 3,000 monuments, some of which, having recently suffered earthquake damage, are wreathed in elaborate bamboo scaffolding while being repaired. Bagan is an Angkor Wat-caliber tourist destination and is lousy with gringos, especially at sunset. But it is worth the hassle. Seriously, check out the photoz.
Commerce - We visited two pottery villages (glazed and terracotta), a stone carver’s street, a goldsmith shop, a cheroot factory, a silk weaving workshop, and several local markets. And, as part of the price of admission, we were besieged by hawkers and hustled, sometimes successfully, at every turn.
[Local Colour Sidebar - Pandaw, the cruise ship company, supports a number of schools in the area. We visited a couple of them as well as a The Mingun Buddhist Home for the Aged. Donate some money, make some merit. That’s the deal.
Transport - Besides the Kalaw (which stranded on a sandbar only once), we got about by bus, truck, ferry, tuk-tuk (a rickshaw pulled by a motorbike), rowboat, and horse cart (less fun than you might imagine).
Shipboard Life - In addition to three squares a day (the food was outstanding), we also were treated to a variety of presentations, including: lectures on Burmese customs and history; cooking, dressing, and make-up demonstrations; Burmese dance and puppet shows; and movies. Oh yes, and cocktail hour every evening before dinner. Very. Civilized.
The River - But as wonderful as the sightseeing and other activities were, what Anne and I enjoyed most was sitting on deck while the Kalaw was underway, catching the breeze, and watching scenes, some of which would have been familiar a century ago, flow by. We felt like we too had played our small part in the story of the Irrawaddy.