MYAN­MAR: HOP ABOARD NOW

Gill Charl­ton

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GILL CHARL­TON TELE­GRAPH ME­DIA GROUP

There is an ex­tra­or­di­nary time­less qual­ity to Myan­mar’s Irrawaddy River, also known as the Aye­yarwady. The kings of me­dieval Ba­gan would al­most cer­tainly recog­nise its river­bank life to­day, with the bul­lock carts and ox ploughs, tiered pago­das atop ram­bling teak monas­ter­ies, and vil­lages of thatched homes raised on stilts, each with a dugout slung be­neath for when the sum­mer mon­soon turns the dirt lanes into wa­ter­ways.

The Irrawaddy bi­sects the coun­try, ris­ing among Hi­malayan glaciers and flow­ing for about 2170km across a wide al­lu­vial plain into the In­dian Ocean. Nav­i­ga­ble for much of its length (un­fet­tered by dams, though th­ese are on the way), it re­mains a cru­cial com­mer­cial and trans­port artery, such is the par­lous state of Myan­mar’s roads. Many river cruises start from Man­dalay and sail either south to Ba­gan or north to Katha. If the river is high, and eth­nic ten­sions low, some ships carry on to Bhamo near the Chi­nese bor­der. Belmond Or­caella also operates seven or eight-night cruises be­tween Ba­gan and Yan­gon.

In both di­rec­tions you will dis­cover a deeply spir­i­tual and tra­di­tional way of life that is just open­ing up to the out­side world. Each day on the river be­gins with the sound of devo­tional chant­ing from water­side monas­ter­ies, surely one of the most beau­ti­ful wake-up calls in the world. In its mid­dle reaches, the Irrawaddy is al­most a kilo­me­tre wide and just a few me­tres deep, its wa­ters ed­dy­ing around sand is­lands where farm­ers plant peanuts and sesame and their wives thwack the fam­ily’s wash against the rocks. You’ll pass lo­cal fer­ries so laden with pas­sen­gers and cargo that sink­ing seems a real pos­si­bil­ity. Nearer the shore, fish­ing ca­noes bob along pre­car­i­ously like pa­per boats.

The stretch be­tween Man­dalay and Ba­gan is rich in cul­tural trea­sures, in­clud­ing sev­eral former royal cap­i­tals. Stops usu­ally in­clude a walk through the pago­das­tud­ded Sa­gaing Hill, sun­set at pho­to­genic U Bein Bridge, built from a thou­sand teak logs, and a pony-and­trap ride through sleepy Inwa (Ava) to ad­mire the glo­ri­ous wood­carv­ings at Ba­gaya monastery. Along the way, you will meet some of the most gen­er­ous and en­dear­ing peo­ple in the world. If trav­el­ling to­wards World Her­itage-listed Ba­gan, one of Asia’s most im­pres­sive, this is your grand fi­nale, with more than 2000 tem­ples, monas­ter­ies and pago­das built by mega­lo­ma­niac kings from the ninth cen­tury on­wards. Some con­tain su­perb fres­coes of ev­ery­day life; oth­ers have gi­ant stat­ues of Bud­dha. To grasp the scale of this me­dieval cap­i­tal, it’s worth tak­ing a dawn hot-air bal­loon flight.

Fewer tourists head up­stream from Man­dalay but there is much to re­ward the in­quis­i­tive, with more time spent in vil­lages, in­clud­ing Nwe Nyein, where pot­ters make enor­mous wa­ter pots on hand-turned wheels with the ease of years of prac­tice. To the north lies Katha, set­ting for Burmese Days, Ge­orge Or­well’s scathing at­tack on em­pire based on his time here as a po­lice­man. His gloomy red-brick house and the former Bri­tish club still stand in this small town. Be­yond Katha the river nar­rows to pass through a se­ries of de­files that echo with the chat­ter of birds and gib­bons in trees hung with rare or­chids. If you are lucky, you will see elu­sive river dol­phins play­ing in the ship’s wake. The sound of a car or a truck is a rar­ity. To ex­plore th­ese up­per reaches is to travel back in time to the Asia of yes­ter­year.

Along the way, you will meet some of the most gen­er­ous and en­dear­ing peo­ple in the world

Colour­ful life on the Irrawaddy, Myan­mar, main; river ves­sels near Ba­gan, top right; sarong sell­ers, above right; pagoda at Sa­gaing Hill, op­po­site right; Or­caella passes lo­cal river­craft, above

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