It’s 6am on the banks of the Irrawaddy River and the world is implausibly awake. Despite the darkness porters scurry back and forth loading and unloading boats. Food sellers are out and about with baskets of fruit and packages of rice. Ticket sellers busily shout to one another. Passengers gather in clusters anxiously awaiting instruction.
Heavy trucks rumble past just inches from my nose. Motor scooters are parked hither and yon. And on the river expectant vessels await their cargo.
It’d be remiss to call this a port or even a dock for there are no jetties, no mooring bollards, no machinery. There’s nothing man-made at all. It’s little more than a patch of baked earth on the bank of the river. The boats are simply moored up against the riverbank; flimsy planks of wood serving as gangplanks. But for all that, it is a bustling hive of early morning activity in a country that still seems beholden to the hours of daylight. It is early to bed and early to rise in Myanmar.
It is February, 2014, and our journey will take us from royal Mandalay to ancient Bagan, around 200km downstream, and is scheduled – if that is the right word – to take around nine hours, although the guide books warn that journey times vary enormously. The options for boats appear multitudinous, ranging from luxury five star cruises, the privately-run fast boats which take around nine hours, and the government-run slow boats, which take two days. (Mind you, like many things in Myanmar, that information will vary depending upon which website you visit.) We are aboard the Shwe Keinnery, although why, I’m not entirely sure. The decision-making was left largely up to a travel agent in Yangon. As long as it got us from A to B in one day, we were easy.
Passengers on the 130-seat Shwe Keinnery are each assigned a seat in the air-conditioned lower deck, most of which are immediately abandoned in favour of the open seating on the middle and upper decks. We find ourselves a couple of comfortable-looking rattan chairs beside the guardrail, in a spot which will allow us to shuffle in and out of the shade as required, and settle in for the next, well, nine, ten, eleven hours. Who knows?
The engines thud, the boat shudders and we’re out on the water at 6.30am, as the sun pokes its head over the horizon, fleetingly bathes the world in an orange glow, then lights – and warms – the morning. Just a few miles downriver and golden pagodas shimmer in the weak morning light. The temples and monasteries of the religious centre of Sagaing crowd the hills along the ridge running parallel to the river. It all feels rather magical.
There is a serenity and an ancientness about Myanmar that makes it feel that you’ve been shifted back in time. Out here on the river, the world drifts by. Sometimes the views are interesting, sometimes less so. There are no fantastic sights, no dramas, no wow moments. It’s all just very calm, and very tranquil.
That said, at 2,170-km long, the Irrawaddy, or Ayeyarwady, or Ayeyarwaddy, is Myanmar’s largest river and its most important commercial waterway. And there is no shortage of traffic. There are tourist boats of all shapes and sizes. There are giant, flat barges transporting their cargo of teak downstream. There are simple dugout canoes. Crude rafts with canvas shelters. Little fishing boats. Longtails. Boats in such a state of disrepair it seems unlikely they’ll reach their destination.
And there is all manner of human activity too. In addition to the logging and the fishing, and the farmers tending their crops on the shores, the Irrawaddy also operates as a large-scale laundry. Women walk along the sandy banks with huge bundles of washing hoisted on their heads. They sit crouched on rocks beating and scrubbing the fabrics clean. Bed sheets and blankets lay drying in the hot sun.
And there are the hardest working saleswomen in Myanmar. As the Shwe Keinnery pauses briefly at Myinmu and Pakkoku, ladies dressed seemingly in their Sunday best wade out into the waters offering their fruit, rice cakes, crisps and chocolates to the passengers.
It is incidentally very much a tourist boat. With the odd exception the only Burmese are the crew and some tour guides. This is not the place to meet the locals and engage in some cross-cultural badinage. The locals are most likely on cheaper slow boats.
It’s February, the middle of the dry season, and despite being an almighty river – up to two kilometres wide in parts – the Irrawaddy becomes extremely shallow at times, as the currents shift and shape the treacherous sandbanks. Running aground is a common experience. So common that when the Shwe Keinnery, with a draft of just 1.5 metres, duly runs aground no fuss is made. The engines are gunned, she’s shifted from forward to reverse and back again, the crew poke the sands with lengthy bamboo poles, and after a little to’ing and fro’ing, and swinging around in all directions, we’re back on the move again. There are no horns or sirens, no shouting, no panicking. It’s just dealt with. Most passengers don’t even notice.
The Irrawaddy, at least this section of it, is remarkably free of bridges. By my reckoning we’ve glided under just three – the 1.7km long, new Yadanabon Bridge in Sagaing; the old Inwa Bridge, also in Sagaing, built by the British and once the only bridge on the river; and the 3.4km long Irrawaddy Bridge (Pakokku), the longest river crossing bridge in the country.
A friend had suggested the first hour of the journey to be interesting and the rest to be a tad boring. His mind must require greater stimulation than mine. There is little to do but open that bottle and pour the first of several generous gin’s and tonic. Well, it would be gin and tonic had it been possible to find any tonic in Mandalay. Despite having a bemused taxi driver take us from supermarket to convenience store and back again, finding tonic proved beyond us. Schweppes Bitter Lemon yes, but Schweppes Tonic Water, no. So gin and bitter lemon it is. Cruising down the Irrawaddy with the late afternoon sun turning the sky bright orange, gin in hand, is absolutely heavenly in my book.
As we approach Bagan, where we will finally disembark, that glorious sun, which has shone brightly on us all day, begins to set. However long the journey was supposed to take, we don’t really care. We have witnessed both sunrise and sunset on the river. And frankly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.