Monday, August 24, 2009

Up the Irrawaddy River

A boat is the most civilized way to travel. A jet may get you there fast, but you don't see anything. A boat, on the other hand, moves at a leisurely pace, enabling you to observe life, not just fly over it while watching a poor video facsimile. Even a river barge can be luxurious if only because you can get up and walk around.

There is no question about how I would go from Bagan to Mandalay, it is question of when. Normally there are numerous choices, but with the river running low, there was one option and it leaves at six the next morning.

At 5AM, shuffling feet in the hall alert me to the impending wake up knock on my guest-room door. The proprietors were used to my early rising and so was I - I had been up for twenty minutes repacking my gear. I settle my bill and step out into the night. It's deathly quiet and still. Only a few windows show evidence of light. The desk clerk looks up and down the road for the horse cart they booked for me the night before. After making some tut-tut noises, he tells me to wait and dashes off into the darkness. A few minutes later he returns and the sounds of a distance horse clop down the road.

I thought that the boat left from the landing at the north side of the town, so I was surprised when the driver turned his horse toward the temples. It would not have been the first time a driver shifted to auto-pilot in taking a tourist on a sightseeing trip. The clerk assures me that he was going the right way and off we go into the darkness. We pass by the Ananda festival market and the place is lively with lamp-lit market stalls and people walking about. I don't know if they kept going all night or if they rose even earlier than I had imagined.

A few minutes later, I know exactly where we were. The speed boat landing is just below the monastery I visited a few days earlier. At the top of the stairs, one of the sailors tries to take my bags, but I'm already comfortably wearing my backpack and camera bag. He insists on carrying my tripod down to the boat. The full moon is just above the horizon and glorious in a cloud mottled sky.  My ride for the day is pressed against the bank throbbing like a diesel powered amphibian dinosaur. It looks fast.

Below us rests the old paddle-wheeler, sitting there in all its decaying majesty. A tired river queen powerless to thwart the young usurper a hundred meters upstream.

I'm the first passenger to arrive. That six o'clock departure time is really just to get the lazy tourists out of bed at a descent hour. After stowing my bag, I go back ashore. Other passengers arrive; maybe a dozen in all. The captain soon blasts the horn and I scramble back up the gangplank and make my way to the stern. The crew cast off the lines and push the boat into the current. The eastern sky is turning pink. To the west, the moon is an orange globe hanging over a blue green horizon. 

As the rumbling engines power the boat into the middle of the river, I see large cliffs in the distance. Two pagodas stand in silhouette against the brightening sky. Bagan was once much larger, but a long time ago the Irrawaddy decided to change course and washed away nearly a third of the ancient city and it's splendid architecture. These pagodas were spared ... for now. The sun crawls lazily out of bed to wish us a good morning.

Few of my fellow passengers speak. We're all watching the sun as it bounces across the top of the cliffs. The forward motion of the boat and the jagged horizon makes it appear as if the sun was moving along the river playing hide and seek. I switch from lens to lens as the light and subjects changed. I occasionally review the images to make sure my exposure is correct. Some of the photos appear as blanks in thew viewer. That's odd. Others appear, disappear and reappear again. I figure I must have accidentally changed some image viewing setting and continue shooting. I realized later that I should have switched to a different storage card. By the time I got to Mandalay, I had a corrupt card and would have lost every photo were it not for bank of image recover tools I used to salvage the corrupt files.

It's not long before the sun is well clear of the horizon. At this latitude, at this time of the year, it practically flies up like a balloon. Speaking of which, I had intended to go for a ride across Bagan on a hot air balloon. The company running the service keeps very odd hours and I managed to miss them. I could have been up there this very morning, but the choice was between a balloon and going to Mandalay by boat. Delaying the trip would mean waiting three or four days for the next boat or taking the bus or a plane. Off in the distance, I could see the silhouettes of the balloons as they ascended and cross the plain. I'm sorry I'm not up there.

Most of the traffic on the river consists of oar powered fishing boats and people crossing from shore to shore. A quick wave from our railings is all that's needed to get big smiles and waves from the little boats.

To avoid getting stuck on the shifting shoals, the captain keeps our boat at half throttle. It's no leisurely pace; we cruise by other up-bound commercial craft with ease. Most of the boats we pass are the steam boats that have been converted to diesel. They still have their old smoke stacks.

The larger riverboats are, of course much more romantic.

Being well up above the water surface gives a much better perspective of the other boats and the scenes on the river banks. There are numerous encampments on the sandy islands left when the monsoon swollen river subsided. People fill their boats with clean river sands and send them to Yangon for construction projects.

As the sun rises too high to get good photos, I get comfortable on one of the wicker chairs on the upper deck. It's hot, but so long as I'm out of the sun, the fast moving boat provides enough of a breeze. The other passengers are a mix of Europeans, mostly older couples who pretty much keep to themselves.

I introduce myself to the only other serious photographer. He's a Torontonian who was a plant manager for an international firm. They had him on expatriate status for a few years but decided he should accept a local wage for a job in India if he wanted to stay on. He quit and has been spending the past year traveling through Asia. I give him some tips on Myanmar and he, in turn, provides me with all sorts of valuable info on China, practically running an itinerary for me.

Looking upstream, a line of rafts catches my eye. It's a dredging project, but it's not to clear a channel for the boats. As we come alongside, I realize it's a gold mining operation using the river to sift the bottom sediment.

The boat cruises by many small towns and smaller villages. Most of them have a few pagodas and a few have guardian lions sitting on the shore. Occasionally, we can see pagodas off in the distance. Myanmar is littered with ancient temples and ruins.

The boat provides free tea but sells food and cold drinks for those willing to pay the premium price. This is typical of most boats and I was prepared for it, having picked up an assortment of snacks the evening before. I offer my Canadian friend some food. He gratefully accepts the fruit and cookies and buys me a beer.

We spot a barge caught on the shifting shoals of the river. It looks like it carries petroleum. A tugboat pushes the barge in a circle in an attempt to free it from the submerged obstruction. We soon leave it behind but another barge is stuck ahead. Its tug is running full throttle to push it free; we can hear the sound of it's engine above our own as it spews black exhaust from its stack. A third stuck barge appears ahead of us. A tug navigates a wide circle around as it attempts to find a proper channel.

The fast boat takes a full day to navigate up the river. Some of the passengers complain that they were told it would only take half a day. I don't know why they're in such a hurry. I'd rather take our time then get stuck.

When I see the monasteries of Sagaing, I know we're near our destination.

Behind our boat, the sun casts a fiery red on the water.

At this point we pass beneath the only bridges we have seen that cross the Irrawaddy. I discover later that's its actually illegal to photograph them, but everyone aboard was shooting that magnificent sunset.

One of the last sights we  see before arriving in Mandalay is a cargo operation unloading logs. One of the crew mentions that it's teak.The logs are three to four feet across. I wonder how they look before they fall to the chain saw. In all my travels in Myanmar, I have seen nothing that resembles an old growth forest.  Looking at the wood being hauled in from the water, I wonder if I ever will.

View the full-size images here.


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