Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Idling Irrawaddy Days

“Arrive Wednesday 5pm” was as much English as the man at the ferry ticket office was willing to offer.  For $7 this seemed like a bargain.  Laden with our new blankets and plastic floor mats (local bamboo appears to have gone out of fashion and has been replaced by Thai imports), we boarded our ferry for the three day/two night “cruise” from Katha to Mandalay.  The first task at hand was to secure our spot on deck.  At first, the crew wanted to ignore our deck tickets and install us in a cabin but we insisted and were led up to the main deck.  The whole purpose of the trip was to live amongst the locals and watch the world go by on the banks of the Irrawaddy.  We hadn’t realised though, that as far as the locals were concerned, we were the entertainment…

These government ferries run several times a week.  An “express” had left that morning which would only take two days and one night but we were on the slow boat.  They carry passengers and a lot of produce along the Irrawaddy, on a route which is ill-served by buses or other forms of transport.  The ferry had spent all afternoon in port loading goods onto the lower deck.  One of the crew led us to the corner of the main deck and offered us a raised wooden frame.  With its excellent vantage point, we snapped it up and settled into our new home.  A lady soon came to see us and, with her small amount of English, informed us that she ran the kitchen selling rice and noodle dishes.  Perfect!

We had hoped to be the only foreigners on board but in the end were joined by two Germans, an Austrian and an Australian.  They were instructed to take up position on the floor near us.  It makes the staring game a lot easier if all the foreigners sit together…  As they were far less prepared than us, the captain’s wife went off and found some old mats for them to use.

We departed from Katha just after 5pm, in time to enjoy our first sunset on board.  We didn’t go far before we stopped to collect more people and goods and this carried on until the early hours, finally anchoring around 1am.  After a hearty meal of vegetable fried rice, we curled up in our sleep sheets and blankets.  We enjoyed some interaction with the locals, discussing where we were all going to and coming from, taking their photos and the local face paint “tanakha” was brought out for Lynn to try.  Our neighbours were two lovely giggling ladies and two very fashionable boys in their early twenties.  The boys would have fitted right in in Soho or the East Village: white jeans, blue jeans, skinny shorts with tartan rim, a selection of belts, ripped t-shirts, winklepicker boots... and the occasional longyi.  For the rest of the trip, they changed outfits at least five times a day. 

The thick blankets performed admirably in the cold of the night, so much so that we missed the loading of three large wooden benches and the arrival of a lot more people onto the main deck.  It didn’t take long in the morning for the locals to realise that these lovely wooden benches were a perfect viewing position in the “stare and laugh at the foreigners” game.  As everything we did caused great amusement, it seemed only right to provide as much entertainment as possible.  Rather than going and sitting in the kitchen area, I brought our breakfast of rice with nuts and tea leaf salad back to the bed along with a flask of tea.  Stepping up onto our bed and over the flask caused the audience to collapse in hysterics.

Although very misty, we set sail around 8.30am but by 10am we had stopped again.  We were beginning to fully understand why this was referred to as the slow boat.  To enjoy this journey, you really must be able to switch off from any sense of time and sit back and absorb the sights around you.  A few good books help too…

In the end the loading at this stop took four hours and the porters’ work was back-breaking.  A group of very lean men set about loading ~50 oil drums onto the bottom deck.  Each one required the guidance of two men down a wooden plank.  The oil drum was definitely in charge, the men there to do their best to guide the drum onto the ferry.  A huge thud was heard each time a drum landed on board.  A bamboo pole was then inserted into the two handles on top of the drum, placed onto the shoulders of two men and lifted into its storage position.  Hundreds of big bags of rice followed along with other sundries – bananas, wooden planks.  The sand on the bank deteriorated with each load and remedial work had to be continually carried out to prevent a landslide.  Fascinating viewing.

Late afternoon we stopped at a busy small town where some of our new friends left us.  As we pulled in alongside a very similar ferry, we spotted two fellow travellers, Kristiaan and Klaus, who we had met in Katha.  They had been due to remain in Katha for another couple of days but it turned out that an “express” had left that morning and they had both decided to jump on board.  We were a little amused that they had left only that morning and had still reached this town ahead of us.  We only unloaded a small amount of produce at this stop and were soon on our way again.  After a beautiful sunset and another vegetable fried rice for dinner (we had mimed for plain rice and vegetables…oh well), we were ready for bed at 6.05pm.  The boat continued to stop and load more produce and people until midnight.  Sometimes we would simply anchor in the middle of the river and a small boat would pull up alongside and pass over their produce.

The 2nd night was much warmer than the first and we woke to a beautiful sunny morning.  The boat set off by 8am and we seemed to be making excellent progress.  This progress was suddenly halted mid morning when we had to stop and provide assistance to the “express” boat which had become stuck on a sandbank in the middle of the river.  The captains spoke for a couple of hours by radio and in the end we moved slowly around them, seemingly creating sufficient agitation in the water and sand to free them.  I will admit that it was a little upsetting to see them steam past us about an hour laterJ.  Kristiaan and Klaus waved.

We had been due to arrive into port in Mandalay that afternoon at around 5pm but it became clear as the afternoon progressed, and we continued to stop at every small village, that another night on board was likely.  Our friends (the fashion victims) told us that we would likely arrive into Mandalay at around 9am the next morning.  A brief “but I really need a shower*, preferably hot” moment was solved by watching sunset from the top of the boat.  Those foreigners without cosy blankets looked like they might cry whilst we smugly considered the extra cost benefit from another night of usage.

We were much reduced in passenger numbers by now as we had been unloading people all afternoon, often just onto a random section of isolated beach.  Come nightfall, the wooden benches reached their destination and our audience had to find new positions for monitoring our funny foreign habits.  There was quite a party atmosphere as everyone on our side of the boat had been together for several days.  A much quieter night ensued though as we were no longer loading people or goods.

Of course we didn’t arrive into Mandalay at 9am but at 1pm!  We donated our blankets and mats to those who looked like they needed them more than us and enjoyed one last meal from the kitchen.  With so much more room on deck, we played with the cook’s young children and some of the shyer teenagers suddenly discovered a love of posing for the camera.  After four days, it felt sad to disembark.  If you would like time to stand still for a short time, there is little better to recommend than the slow boat from Katha to Mandalay.  It is helpful in Burma to remember that for much of the country (unlike the developed cities of Rangoon and Mandalay), small scale agriculture is the way of life.  All you see along the banks of the river are farms and pagodas.  Boats of all shapes and sizes chug up and down the river, creating connections.

We decided to walk the hour into town to re-introduce a sense of exercise into our lives, slightly annoying the trishaw drivers at the port.  About halfway into town, a trishaw driver approached me to see if we needed a ride.  “No thank you,” I said, “we’re walking”.  “Have you just come off the Katha boat?” he asked, before cycling off laughing.  When we later bumped into Kristiaan for a beer, we were happy to discover that the “express” ferry had in fact only reach Mandalay one hour before we did!  Not so fast after all; exactly as it should be.

* I would like to note that whilst the foreigners may not have showered for four days, all the locals took a wash each day in the river using their longyi for discretion.

Irrawaddy / Ayeyarwaddy = same same

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