Myanmar: Reminisce on the river

By Angela Lock

Myanmar's countryside hosts a lifestyle that has scarcely changed over centuries, Angela Lock discovers.

The Road To Mandalay cruise ship is a comfortable way to travel the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar.
The Road To Mandalay cruise ship is a comfortable way to travel the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar.

The countryside passes by as if it were a travelogue on a movie screen. Bamboo huts atop stilts, grazing cattle, tiny hamlets without electricity, and pagodas with golden roofs everywhere you look.

A saying in these parts goes: "If you are standing somewhere and don't see a pagoda, then you're not in Myanmar."

The atmosphere puts the guests on board the river cruise ship in a meditative mood. Some are simply sitting there silently, in rapt fascination, taking in the idyllic scenery.

On the banks of the river, women wash clothes, children swim and laugh, a farmer ploughs his field with a team of oxen. It's a glimpse of a lifestyle that has scarcely changed over the centuries.

The white cruise vessel, the Road To Mandalay, is gliding along the muddy brown Irrawaddy River that winds lazily through the landscape. The ship was built in 1964 for cruises on the Rhine River in Europe. Since 1996, it has been in service on the 2170km Irrawaddy, Myanmar's longest river.

Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, once lyrically praised the Irrawaddy in a poem about a British solder on the "road to Mandalay". In fact, this "road" is used to transport anything and everything - rice, cars, oxen, teak wood and tourists.

"The Irrawaddy demands our highest concentration, what with its constantly changing depths," captain Myo Lwin says.

The 58-year-old, who used to pilot huge container ships across the world's oceans, is a fan of his ship's German engineering.

Today, the Road To Mandalay is a comfortable way to travel the Irrawaddy - a voyage made all the more pleasant by the services of the smiling and friendly crew.

Loud music can be heard as the ship docks at the village of Moe Dar, where passengers can disembark for a tour.

Small boys, dressed as colourfully as princes, ride on gaily decorated ponies through the village's muddy lanes. They are taking part in a ceremony to mark their acceptance into a monastery. Inside, a monk is shaving the boys' heads, symbolically designating them as novices who will be following the path of the Buddha for a number of weeks.

The parents look proud and the visitors are touched by this opportunity to witness the ceremonies, part of the deep Buddhist faith that is one of Myanmar's special treasures.

As the Road To Mandalay winds towards the north, the green landscape becomes wilder and less populated. When the ship enters a narrow gorge deep in the jungle, a mystical atmosphere envelops its passengers as the rain comes down from low-hanging clouds. There's a new bridge but no modern buildings to be seen.

A land excursion offers a chance to see elephants at work in a forestry camp.

"Myanmar is the last country on Earth where elephants are used for forestry work," says tour guide Mimi.

"We have about 3000 work elephants and just about as many wild elephants."

In one camp, the elephants display how impressively nimble they are. One elephant is pulling a tree trunk from a pond, simultaneously going up a slippery embankment and balancing another tree trunk on its tusks.

At the end of the river cruise, the Road To Mandalay docks directly at Bagan. The ancient city is a majestic landscape of pagodas with about 3000 temples and monasteries.

A horse-drawn carriage transports guests to the brick edifices, most of which date back to the 11th to 13th centuries. The view is magnificent, a mirage-like architectural masterpiece that holds visitors spellbound.

As Kipling wrote more than 100 years ago in Letters from the East: "This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Thai Airways flies five times a week between Auckland and Bangkok.

Further information: Road To Mandalay has cruises from three to 11 days.

- AAP

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