“River travelling is monotonous and soothing. No matter what part of the world you are it is the same. No responsibility rests on your shoulders. Life is easy.”
W. Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour
The Ayeyarwaddy River is Myanmar’s lifeline. Its name means “mother river.” Starting in the northern highlands, it flows south to the Andaman Sea, giving the country a thousand miles of navigable river. It acts as a super highway, transporting everything from teak to people. Kipling called it “the Road to Mandalay.”
We were to call the Ayeyerwaddy home for the next two days, floating down the river on a simple, family-run riverboat. The top deck had the captain’s bridge and an open covered area filled with lounge chairs where we would watch the river go by. On the lower deck were our berths: foam beds separated by only plywood walls.
We boarded in hot and dusty Mandalay at midday. We were fed a delicious lunch from a tiny kitchen off the back of the boat: mutton curry, fish curry, and tomato salad, all of which was mouth-watering. This was as close to home cooking as we would get.
Mingun, a few miles upriver from Mandalay, was our first stop. We rode horse carts to visit the Mingun pagoda, the ruins of a failed attempt to build the largest pagoda in the world. As we left the pagoda we literally walked into a noviciation parade: Young boys, who were about to become monks for a two week period, were being paraded on horseback wearing elaborate outfits. Becoming a monk, even for a few weeks, is a great honor for Myanmar families. The boys’ sisters walked in single file behind the horses, also dressed in beautiful outfits. Pulling up the rear of the parade was a truck carrying a bunch of cross-dressing singers. Win, our guide, told me that entertainers like this are often hired for significant events like weddings and noviciation ceremonies. I wondered what the backstory was, but left it at that.
We left Mingun and headed back downstream for a few miles, anchoring off of a sandbar for the evening. A group of fishermen families were camped nearby and their children come over to investigate us. I sat on deck and sipped a Mandalay rum and pineapple juice, watching the sun slip below the horizon.
The next morning was cold and dark. I woke before the dawn and sat on the top deck shivering in all the warm clothes that I brought with me. I heard music coming from the noviciation ceremony we saw yesterday coming from the other side of the river. Did it play all night or are they starting up again? The boatmen untied us and we are off heading downriver before breakfast.
The river water, the color Earl Grey tea with milk, appeared languid on the surface but was actually moving quite fast. I sat and watched golden pagodas appear through the morning fog on the far shore. Boats of different sizes plied the river: huge barges filled with teak, small pandow canoes and everything in between. Men with long poles tested the depth of the water from the front of the boat. It was the dry season and the water was at its lowest, hitting a sandbar was a real risk.
We visited more pagodas at Inwa, the ancient capitol. Then we were back on the boat for an afternoon of floating downriver. Sunlight shimmered on the water. The heat was immense. Bamboo huts dotted the shore. Occasionally a gold-domed pagoda would pass by. I tried to keep from falling asleep in the lounge chairs but it was impossible. The heat and vibration of the boat were like a lullaby. I listened to the chatter of the boatmen coming from the captain’s bridge. One of the boatmen sang a little song.
We anchored at another sandbar for the night. After dinner, Micky, Kristine and I sat on the top deck watching stars and drinking Havana Club that Micky bought at duty free in Hanoi. The staff were also having a little party of their own: The talk was lively… I think they may have had some Mandalay rum as well. The cook’s assistant had a laugh that is so infectious I wanted to record it.
The final morning was much warmer. We continued downstream for several hours, continuing to be lulled by the river, before we reached Bagan where we had to leave the boat. The boat trip was over but the river had seduced us. We were already scheming about how and when we could return.