16 February 2011
Voyage of Discovery in Myanmar
A journey aboard the Road To Mandalay river cruiser always yields surprises. The Ayeyarwady reveals countless hidden delights, as does all of Myanmar.
This could be heaven. We are on the open deck of the river boat, Road To Mandalay, gently cruising through Myanmar. The temperature is perfect; a light breeze ruffles the air. The ship seems to be gliding, noiselessly, through the sunshine. A sharp sound briefly breaks the silence - a primitive diesel engine on a small boat striving to restrain two vast, attached barges piled high with tree trunks carefully labelled in Burmese script. It passes in a flurry of friendly hand-waving - the river navigator's semaphore.
There is another silent language ever-present on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river: that of the swirling river eddies, spinning like dervishes in their dozens; each alerting the pilot to the exact position of the narrow, twisting navigation channels - at their most insidious at this, the low-water time of year.
Thirty or so passengers lounge on huge cushions covering the wicker sofas under the shade of crisp, white canopies. Some are dozing, some gazing on the scenery and some reading, perhaps about the boat's last landfall: Bagan. This ancient city is an Indiana Jones film set of pagodas, sacked a millennium ago by Kublai Khan, yet still standing in their thousands, almost outnumbering the few visitors who come to marvel at their elegant architecture and Buddhist remains. On the passing shore brightly dressed children are coaxing an ox-cart along the high bank towards a village of wooden houses.
The 1300-mile river rises in the high Himalaya to the north and issues its sandy content into the azure Andaman Sea. Its distinct personality encapsulates the land it bisects: mysterious, resource-rich, unpredictable, hospitable, agrarian, and - peppered with stupas and shining temples around every lazy bend - deeply devout.
What were your magic moments when travelling through Myanmar?