2011
06.11

We wanted to experience all that Myanmar has to offer so we set out on an “adventure” through the northern part of the country; though at the time, I am not sure that either of us grasped what a challenge it would be.  Our goal was to travel overland as far north as tourists are allowed to the Kachin capital city of Myitkyina then return to Mandalay by boat on the Ayeyarwady River.  It was an ambitious idea and we knew there would be some uncomfortable times along the way, but in reality, neither of us really knew what to expect.  Our destinations were not unknown to foreigners, but the route was definitely a little off the beaten track.  But I do not think either of us expected that our dinner in Mandalay with a friendly American named Harry would be the last time we saw another foreigner for five days.

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It all began with a rough plan and question-and-answer session with a Mandalay travel agent.  My first inquiry was met with such a barrage of options, time tables and prices that we had to return again with questions written out and plenty of ink to get it all down.  There were several ways to reach each town and others could hardly be reached at all.  There were bus schedules, boat schedules, road closures, and price scales- and they all varied depending on the day of the week.  Some roads and even river ways were off limits to foreigners and nearly the whole region outside of designated routes was not accessible to tourists at all.  Government officials would need records of our travels and our passports would have to be produced at roadside checkpoints.  This whole trip was turning out to be more of an adventure than we had planned.  On top of it all, our only option along certain routes was to use government transportation which we had since been determined to avoid.  But if our goal was to experience firsthand the life of the Burmese people, then this was one compromise we would have to make.

Our biggest reservation for this trip was taking the train which is government-owned and costs foreigners about six times the local rate.  Yet, the only other option for reaching Myitkyina was on an airlines with a less-than-stellar safety record and close ties to senior Myanmar generals.  We calculated the costs for the train and discovered it to be a small percentage of our total spending; and it was far less likely to cost us our lives.

On the first account, I believe our decision was valid, though, on the second, we might not have been so correct.  For as the train departed Mandalay Station at 4:30am and picked up a little speed, the cars began to shake and bounce so violently that windows slammed shut and everyone seemed to be hopping in their seats.  The upside was that the train never went so fast as to feel we were in danger; the downside being it would take nearly twenty hours to reach our destination.

As we pulled out of Mandalay, the sun was just beginning to rise and by the time we reached Myitkyina it was close to midnight.  Thankfully, our “upper class” seats were flush with legroom and comfortably reclined (though mine would only stay that way); though the fact that they faced one another made it all too easy for people to stare at the only foreigners on board.  Of course, with cabins that defied the laws of railway physics as they shook, rocked, and swayed from side to side, some curious stares were really the least of our worries.

From the open windows of an upper class cabin we admired the scenery on both sides of the train.  Ox carts pulled farmers clad in conical rattan hats with their longyis (skirt worn by both sexes) hitched up like shorts to provide respite from the midday heat as they prepared fields for harvests.  Monks in saffron robes strode through the countryside beneath umbrellas, seemingly oblivious to the train as it lurched and rambled by.  Children waved at the passing train, their faces and that of their nearby mother decorated with thick white thanaka paste (white cosmetic paste made from ground bark).  Shacks made of woven rattan with roofs of thatched grass stood on stilts surrounded by plots of rice that glowed green in the afternoon sun.  Amidst the colorful quilt-like fields stood haystacks shaped like stupas and water buffaloes that fed on plentiful grasses.  And as the sun began to set, I could only stand in the open doorway and admire scene after scene as they passed by, like a Burmese novel played out beneath red, pink, and violet colors in the light of the evening sky.

We arrived in Myitkyina close to midnight after a long, bumpy train ride that seemed it would never end.  Two motorbikes whisked us down the street to the YMCA where we managed a few hours sleep before it was time to go again.  A 7am bus would carry us south to Bhamo, but when we arrived at the station they informed us it was full.  No one spoke English, but with some gesturing and head-nodding, I told them we would take whatever we could get.  A heated conversation ensued among the Burmese and soon two seats had miraculously appeared, albeit at an exorbitant cost.  We were happy just to be on board and at first we did not mind that we were above the wheel with no legroom at all.  The bus filled up quickly and, in typical style, it would soon be overfilled.  But, thankfully, our journey to Bhamo had begun.

We had considered making this trip entirely on the river, but when the rains soon came, I was happy we were not in a boat.  But even the tattered old bus did little to shield us, as our window was entirely missing and replaced with a leaky plastic sheet.  Even the roof dripped and dribbled, but at this point, what could we do but grin and bear it?  At least the road was smooth, I thought to myself, as we sat jammed between the uncomfortable metal seats.

For hours the bus weaved its way down curving roads and when the rains had finally stopped, we rolled up our plastic “window” and enjoyed the views.  The hills surrounding us were bathed in green and rivers ran full and wide, both fed by monsoon rains.  It was a beautiful drive and in the early hours our discomfort was minimal in contrast to our appreciation of our surroundings.  After a few hours we stopped for lunch and, along with the locals, we selected a nameless dish from the buffet of mystery stews and curries.  In a small wooden shack along the back roads of Burma, the only two white people anywhere to be seen sat on little plastic stools feasting on rice, curries, and vegetables, feeling worlds away from the lives we led just two months before.

Our serendipitous feelings was quickly replaced by the bone-jarring pain of an overpacked bus on a road littered with potholes.  At an achingly slow pace, we bounced along a road covered in craters, our knees slamming against metal-framed seats with no place to stretch our cramped legs.  It seemed there would be no respite from the discomfort and pain as hour after hour the bus lurched its way towards Bhamo.  Our only breaks were roadside bathroom stops where women were forced to squat in plain view and at highway checkpoints where copies of passports were delivered to the proper officials.  Eight hours after the trip has began, we finally arrived in the small town of Bhamo, sore, tired, and grimy with dust and sweat.

The Friendship Hotel described itself as an “oasis”, and though rather unspectacular, for two people so weary and dirty after two exhausting days of travel, just to have an air conditioner and shower was paradise indeed.  Unfortunately, there was still more to be done so I set out immediately for the main ferry office.  In just a few blocks I could hardly believe the attention I received.  It seemed every motorcycle and building I passed, all eyes fell upon me in a mix of surprise and delight.  People waved and shouted “Hello!” and were all too pleased to give me directions.

At the office I found three men sitting on the porch, clad in longyis and their teeth stained blood red by the betel (seed of betel palm chewed with leaves of the betel pepper and lime as a digestive stimulant and narcotic in southeastern Asia) they chewed.  After two long days I needed good news, but I would find none of that here.  A cabin on the ferry would cost each of us $54, a whopping $108 for a day and a half ride.  I chastised the manager for the exorbitant price and the pathetic government for which he worked.  But the price was ridiculous and I refused to pay, knowing that other tourists had paid $54 for a cabin for two.  He continued to grin at me with a mouthful of thick red juice that made me sick to my stomach, especially knowing that we would have no other choice.  Still, I would not contribute 100 of my dollars to this vile, evil government.  So I bought two “ordinary class” tickets, content to travels how the locals do.

With the ferry traveling only three days a week, our next day would be spent relaxing in the town of Bhamo.  There was little to do, but eat, sleep and drink as we walked the streets in search of a good local bar.  The attention we drew as we strolled down the road left us giggling in a mix of flattery and nervousness.  It seemed as if the whole town was watching us.  So many eyes stared out at us from restaurants and bars that we were too unnerved to even enter.  So as we left the main drag, full of gaping men and curious women, and found a quieter street where we would not be such an attraction.  The “Heaven” restaurant and beer station had served us well the previous night and we grew so fond of the place that we returned three times.  We kicked back with draft glasses of Myanmar beer and heaping plates of Chinese food while watching Tom & Jerry cartoons, Animal Planet, and Myanmar movies.  We knew several of the teenage waiters by name and our presence seemed to thrill them, both day and night.  Though they spoke no English, their smiles spoke a hundred words, especially “CoCo” whose whole face would light up when we looked his way.  He was so shy and nervous that when we asked his name, his lips moved but not a sound could be heard, and he ran away smiling with his name still stuck in his throat.  The bond that would develop between us and our young friends was one of an unspoken mutual admiration and delight.  We were only in Bhamo a short time, but it was some of the happiest moments of our trip.

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Early Wednesday morning our hotel “shuttle”, a pickup truck with two plastic seats in back, delivered us to the ferry jetty where loads of goods and locals, seemingly with all of their belongings, piled onto an old double deck ferry.  Being the only foreigners on board, we were easy to spot and the ticket handler ushered us up to our “seats”.  We climbed the stairs up to the deck and found not seats, but a mass of bodies piled onto the floor.  This can’t be it, I thought to myself, as the man led us through a sea of dark, staring faces to a far corner of the deck.  Barking in Burmese at a group of men in our space, he ripped their blanket from beneath them and ordered them to move.  Only then did I notice that the four “seats” we purchased (2 for each of us) were just narrow spaces on a dirty concrete floor designated by white painted lines.  Apparently, this was going to be even more uncomfortable than I imagined.

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We placed our backpacks on the edge of our space to use as seat cushions, back rests, and also our pillows.  Then we opened our sleeping bags and spread them wide on the filthy floor to serve as blankets and mark our space.  These things we did under the gaze of hundreds of curious eyes that over the course of the next day and a half would follow all things we do.  Whether sitting and reading, snapping photos, eating snacks, or drinking a beer, every move we made was closely examined by all eyes on deck, even those who strained from far away to see.  An old TV would play Myanmar movies, but clearly we would serve as the on-board entertainment.  This role we embraced, and though sometimes uncomfortable, it was one we were happy to fill.  For these are not the blank, emotionless stares of India, but a boatful of curious laughs and gleaming smiles.

Views from a ferry on the Irrawaddy River; in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

Views from a ferry on the Irrawaddy River; in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

 

Views from a ferry on the Irrawaddy River; in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

Together we would embrace the long boat ride, from idyllic cruising admiring the passing countryside to hunched in the shade and shadows weathering the oppressive midday heat.  Hardly a word would be spoken between us, but a Views from a ferry on the Irrawaddy River; in the country of Burma (Myanmar)camaraderie developed instantly with our neighbors as soon as we had taken our seats.  I invited a young mother with a sick, coughing baby to lean against my pack when I saw she did not have a seat; and she scolded a boisterous drunken man and made him move when he encroached on our space.  Our neighbors found a blanket and hung it to block us from the searing afternoon sun; and I bought a bottle of beer which they shared with us, along with their can of roasted nuts.  When the boat made each of its five short stops to load and unload passengers, we bought food and snacks from the vendors who hopped on board; and the men and women around us were happy to assist us with each transaction.  Even the monks who sat beside us on a raised platform grew fond of us immediately, eager to share their cigarettes or betel and offer their headphones so that we might have a listen.

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Yet, nothing brought us so close (literally) as the nighttime monsoon.  What began as a light rain soon turned into a heavy downpour, the wind whipping the blankets they hung to protect us and buckets of rain drenching our limited space.  What was sure to be a difficult night already had taken a drastic turn for the worse.  Yet, the amicable locals made space where we could lean against our packs and together weather what was sure to be a brutal night.  It was a hard couple of hours, but eventually the rains subsided and we were able to lay our rain jackets on the deck and protect our bags from getting too wet.  Huddled together with hundreds of Burmese, we finally managed to lay down and get a little sleep.

The next morning we awoke to a glorious sunrise.  The whole sky was alight in wondrous color and the grassy banks glowed green in the early morning light.  Like a giant slumber party, one by one hundreds of us awoke on the ferry deck and silently enjoyed the view.  The worst was behind us now and a few hours later we would arrive in Mandalay.  Five days we had traveled, along train tracks, potholed roads, and a slow river current.  We had known the journey would not be easy, but our weary bodies spoke the truth.  It had been a difficult trip, long and uncomfortable, with little sleep and long, exhausting days; but our adventure was near complete.

Views from a ferry on the Irrawaddy River; in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

Views from a ferry on the Irrawaddy River; in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

Views from a ferry on the Irrawaddy River; in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

Northern Burma might not have had the wondrous temples we found at Bagan or the idyllic waters we floated upon at Inle Lake.  But it had afforded us a small glimpse into the lives of the Burmese people and their warm hospitality and gleaming smiles would make this one of the highlights of our trip.  We waved goodbye as we departed the boat to friends with whom we had never spoken a word common between us.  Though likely our paths would never cross again, we knew that our lives had been forever touched by the gracious people; and the smiles on their faces spoke a thousand words, as if somehow they felt the same.

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3 comments so far

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  1. I took around 30 mins to read the entire post and after reading it i had a feeling of visiting Northern Myanmar myself.

  2. this is reli cool …!!!

  3. I long to be in Burma! Thanks for this article, beautifully written. So keen to see Burma from North to South. And with the coup next door – http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27585297 – we may see more visitors flock to Myanmar in 2014 – and they should! Looks so nice. Found another article with more about the rich culture of this beautiful unspoiled place – http://www.travelindochina.com/blog-articles/welcome-to-burma – may be of interest to fellow travellers.