A pas­sage to Burma past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - RIVER CRUISING - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

Cruiseco Ex­plorer is inch­ing to­wards Man­dalay. It’s late in the dry sea­son and the Irrawaddy (Aye­yarwady) River is low, its broad, dusty flood­plains dot­ted with makeshift fish­ing huts and graz­ing oxen. Ev­ery vil­lage port of call in­volves a scram­ble up steep river­banks and right now crew mem­bers are out front with long, spindly depth sticks ten­ta­tively feel­ing their way past a large cargo boat stranded on a sand­bar.

The air buzzes with heat but I’m re­clin­ing in my teak steamer chair on the top deck with a cup of tea, leav­ing Cap­tain Mg Mg to ex­pertly nav­i­gate Myan­mar’s fa­bled river.

An Irrawaddy cruise is like no other, a wa­tery por­tal back to the 19th cen­tury where the pass­ing scenery — lush, agrar­ian and dot­ted with thou­sands of white stu­pas and gold-daubed tem­ples — is un­changed since Rud­yard Ki­pling fell un­der the spell of old Burma. Cruiseco Ex­plorer is a new ves­sel but the op­er­a­tor has cap­tured the ro­mance of the Ki­pling era, thanks in large part to the tremen­dous crew, im­mac­u­lately turned out in white uni­forms, hold­ing um­brel­las aloft to pro­tect us from the sun as we dis­em­bark, clean­ing our dusty shoes ev­ery night, rustling up a cock­tail when the tan­gelo-coloured sun sets, suf­fus­ing the broad dusty hori­zon with an al­most sur­real glow. Aside from busy Ba­gan, ports are very low key, usu­ally tiny vil­lages. We ex­plore on foot; some­times we get about by horse and gig, vis­it­ing bustling mar­kets or whis­per-quiet tem­ples stacked to the teak rafters with gold Bud­dha stat­ues. But the great­est charm is the op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve river life as we drift along. There are women col­lect­ing urns of wa­ter and car­ry­ing them on their heads, backs, ram­rod straight; or pound­ing laun­dry on river stones; chil­dren and dogs play in the long grass; cat­tle are teth­ered to salt plum trees; hand-thrown wa­ter pots (about 30c a piece) are lined up for sale be­neath a banyan tree. We stroll through fields of towering caster plants into a vil­lage to see th­ese pots made, the clay soft­ened by a young lad us­ing his feet, much like crush­ing grapes; later the pots are cured on an open fire. I buy jade beads and ink draw­ings from stalls in vil­lage streets lined with ta­marind trees; and large bunches of tiny roses in town mar­kets.

I take pho­tos of wiz­ened farm­ers driv­ing creak­ing bul­lock carts, men hand-beat­ing gold leaf, women weav­ing silk on clank­ing looms … and tem­ples, tem­ples, tem­ples. This is a cruise of sim­ple plea­sures. As our wry guide Swan Yee Soe, notes on our fi­nal evening, “Here is your last chance to see a bark­ing dog, sleep­ing pig, run­ning chicken and dusty road.” I would wing there again in a heart­beat; if you want to ex­pe­ri­ence the charm of old Burma, go now. That river is get­ting busier by the sea­son. • cruis­ing.com.au

Chris­tine McCabe was a guest of Cruiseco.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.