A passage to Burma past
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.