We decided to end 2014 with a bang. In other words, we took another big trip. I always think of each vacation as “a trip of a lifetime” even though we’ve had many of these since moving to China. In the past year, we went to Kyoto and then New Zealand. Before we knew it, we were sitting on a runway in Myanmar bopping our heads in time with the smooth-jazzy Christmas songs rolling out of the Mann Yadanarpon Airlines PA system. We agreed that the chintzy but festive frosted blue wreath taped on the cockpit door was another welcome reminder of the holiday season.
Myanmar was my trip. Iggy wasn’t sure why I was so interested in visiting the country still known as Burma in some circles. The bulk of our two-week itinerary took us to rural areas that weren’t much different from our temporary home in rural China. Slash-and-burn farming methods? Check. Fields still tilled by plows pulled by oxen and cows? Check. Goat herders coaxing their flocks through barren fields and across shoddily paved country roads? Check. People of all ages riding rickety single speed bikes, and families of three, sometimes four, zipping by on rusty mopeds? Check and check.
Just another evening near the village of Thone Sae along the Irrawaddy River
But the hype surrounding Myanmar convinced me that we had better get there sooner rather than later. The country has only recently reopened its doors to tourists after decades of self-imposed isolation, so I wanted to see it before it changed drastically. The country’s history and Buddhist culture also fascinated me, which were reasons enough for a visit. Then I got on a George Orwell kick after reading Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, from which I learned how much of his life and writings were tied to “The Golden Land.” His books never struck a nerve when they were required reading back in junior high, but after living in China for two years, I’ve developed a new appreciation for the words and messages contained in Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Did I mention that my grandfather had served in Burma during World War II? Yet another reason.
A common sight in Myanmar: a golden stupa. This one happens to be Soon U Pon Nya Shin Paya, one of many found in the Sagaing Hill area near Mandalay.
Okay, wait. I need to back up a minute to confess that my new-found interest in Myanmar actually stemmed from a much less erudite place. I wanted to go on a cruise down the Irrawaddy River. It seemed like a good way to experience Myanmar’s highlights — from Mandalay, its last royal capital city that remains a huge draw for its Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, to the ancient kingdom of Bagan with its crumbling Buddhist temples and stupas. In between the two, we could take in the aforementioned pastoral landscape as our vessel cruised downstream, stopping at villages and markets along the way. It was a bonus that a cruise appeared to be the most relaxing way to travel given Myanmar’s poor infrastructure. Maybe it wasn’t the cheapest option, but with a little research and flexibility in our travel dates, I found a discounted, yet reputable riverboat that we could afford to call home for our first week.
The RV Kalaw Pandaw, our floating hotel for seven nights.
The itinerary piqued my interest, as did the company’s laid back, informal philosophy, but everything else I had read about river cruising made me wonder if the cruise was right for us. For starters, we aren’t really in to group travel, by which I mean Iggy and I are both loners who like to be alone together. Secondly, we have only recently entered our 30s, which makes us about 40 years younger than the stereotypical riverboat passenger. Lastly, based on past experiences within Asia, we aren’t big fans of tour guides and knew they’d be unavoidable in this situation. In the end, my interest in the cruise won out. I didn’t want to have to figure out all the logistics of the trip on my own. I do enough of that in China. We had just spent three weeks doing that in New Zealand. It was time for an easy vacation with as little logistical thinking required as possible.
It was easy to self-congratulate as I sat comfortably cross-legged in the wicker chairs found on the boat’s upper deck in the brisk mornings and evenings, often with a hot cup of coffee in my hand and Iggy by my side. From there, I could watch the sky light up each morning with the first pink, orange, and purple rays of sun that revealed fishermen already on the prowl and cargo boats chugging slowly by. In the evenings, the crisp, blue sky faded to periwinkles and lavenders that grew darker as they mixed with the gray plumes of smoke that rose up from distant villages before snaking out across fertile, green fields.
Of course, taking a “luxury” riverboat cruise in a still-developing country makes one feel sort of guilty. There we were being served delicious three course meals and sipping from bottled water as we sat on the boat’s sleek, teak deck. There the locals were, too, washing their clothes, dishes, faces, and bodies in the river, or fishing using rudimentary rods (a line tied to a can), or performing the arduous task of hauling water from the river back to their homes. If we learned anything from our trip, it was the central role that this river plays in the lives of the people who live along it.
The Irrawaddy River is also known for being shallow during the dry months of December-February. I didn’t fully appreciate this fact until our “ultra shallow draft” vessel got stuck not once but twice…in practically the same spot. Want to know how to get a big boat unstuck from a sandbar? Well, I can tell you, but it’s complicated, so put on your thinking cap. It involves lots of sophisticated engineering techniques like sending a few sailors into the frigid water to stand on a big, thick branch. If that doesn’t work, there’s always the flood-underneath-the-boat-with-fire-hoses approach. If that fails to solve the problem, get another big boat and try the push-and-pull method. Still stuck? Get some little boats typically used for hauling people, wood, or freshly cut crops and have them pull you (along with the three sailors still in the water). If you, like us, get lucky, this four-combo fix will get your luxury riverboat unstuck in a speedy 26 hours.
We could’ve succumbed to the peer pressure of our fellow cruisers — most of whom, it should be stated, were nowhere near close to being septuagenarians — who got riled up by the unfortunate situation, but it seemed like a pointless reaction. After all, ’tis the season to be
merry grateful you aren’t the one balancing on a stick in the middle of a cold river with a luxury riverboat full of tourists taking pictures of you.