At Leisure

A JOUR­NEY UP MYAN­MAR’S AYEYARWADY RIVER FROM MAN­DALAY TO THE FAR NORTH­ERN TRAD­ING TOWN OF BHAMO, NEAR THE CHI­NESE BOR­DER. BY PAUL EHRLICH

World Travel Magazine - - Contents -

Days spent leisurely sail­ing on the Ir­rawaddy River, run­ning through the mid­dle of Myan­mar.

It’s early morn­ing when we dock at the river­side trad­ing town of Bhamo in the north­ern­most part of Myan­mar. Just 65 kilo­me­tres from China, it’s a bustling bor­der town of pot­holed streets jammed with cars, buses, pickup trucks and mo­tor­bikes leav­ing whirls of dust. Clut­ters of shops sell gold jew­ellery, jade, clothes, toys, knock-off CDS and lots of mostly cheap Chi­nese goods. But there are also fine ex­am­ples of old teak houses and mag­nif­i­cent broad, over­hang­ing trees shad­ing a quaint river­front.

I am trav­el­ling along the Ayeyarwady on Bel­mond’s lux­ury ship, the Or­caella, named af­ter the en­dan­gered snub-nosed dol­phins that swim the river. Over the next sev­eral days we will ex­pe­ri­ence the peo­ple, their be­liefs, cus­toms, and daily ex­is­tence along one of Asia’s great rivers.

The Ayeyarwady flows from the Hi­malayan glaciers and sweeps down through the heart of Myan­mar—for­mally called Burma—to the fer­tile delta re­gion into the An­daman Sea. Also known as the Ir­rawaddy, it is the coun­try’s largest and most im­por­tant com­mer­cial wa­ter­ways.

The trip be­gan sev­eral days ago down river in Man­dalay, the coun­try’s sec­ond-largest city and cul­tural cap­i­tal. We will re-visit it on the river-ride back. For now, we visit Soon U Ponya

Shin Paya on the south­ern side of 240-me­tre high Sa­gaing Hill. The Bud­dhist tem­ple fea­tures a 30-me­tre high gilded stupa that was orig­i­nally built in 1312. Leg­ends claim the struc­ture mirac­u­lously ap­peared overnight from a su­per­hu­man act by the king’s min­is­ter who was in­flu­enced by a mag­i­cal Bud­dha relic that he found in a be­tel-nut box. From the balcony, I take in the spec­tac­u­lar view of pago­das and, across the brown Ayeyarwady, the Shan hills.

We then set sail to Min­gun. The lit­tle river­side vil­lage has a trio of unique sites, the most fa­mous be­ing Min­gun Paya, also known as Min­gun Pah­to­daw­gyi. Be­neath a banyan tree, I marvel at what is left of this mas­sive, in­com­plete square struc­ture. Roughly 73-me­tre cube of rus­set-coloured bricks on a 140-me­tre lower ter­race, it’s meant to be the world’s largest stupa. But when King Bo­daw­paya died in 1819, only the bot­tom third was com­pleted.

Next is the mag­nif­i­cent 14-me­tre high, 90-ton Min­gun Bell, re­port­edly the largest un-cracked hang­ing bell in the world, com­mis­sioned by the same king in 1808. I give the bell a good whack with a wooden mal­let and hear a deep bass ring­ing that, I’m told, will bring me good luck.

I then stroll past sou­venir shops sell­ing mar­i­onettes hang­ing from tree branches, shelves of wooden masks, Bud­dha im­ages and other hand­i­crafts. I reach the third ma­jor site, Paya

Hs­in­byume, an at­trac­tive pagoda built in 1816 by the fu­ture King Bagyi­daw in mem­ory of one of his wives. The pagoda rises in seven un­du­lat­ing white­washed ter­races sym­bol­is­ing the seven moun­tain ranges around Mt Meru, which, ac­cord­ing to Bud­dhism is the cen­tre of the Bud­dhist uni­verse.

We then slowly put­ter up river for a few hours to the small vil­lage of Nwe Nyein, known for pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity, glazed earth­en­ware pot­tery that’s sold through­out the coun­try. The cot­tage in­dus­try in­volves more than half the vil­lage’s pop­u­la­tion.

There are no store-bought pot­tery wheels, elec­tric kilns, fancy tools and other equip­ment

here. The en­tire pro­duc­tion is hand­made by tra­di­tional meth­ods. And it’s a la­bo­ri­ous process. In­side one work­shop dusty sun­light seeps through open win­dows and cracks in the wooden walls. A cou­ple of ba­bies sleep in rock­ers as young girls squat on the hard dirt floor spin­ning with their hands—some stand­ing use their feet—wooden swivel bases as older, squat­ting women shape moist, red­dish clay, har­vested from the nearby riverbeds, into var­i­ous small­sized pots. Out­side, women carry the small pots stacked and bal­anced on their heads to dry out­side in the hot sun.

In an­other work­shop young women are also squat­ting on the floor spin­ning wooden swivel bases. But here, men are mak­ing huge, 50-gal­lon, swollen-shaped wa­ter pots. I watch one pot­ter, bare­foot in a sarong and T-shirt, us­ing one hand to shape the con­tour from in­side the pot while the other hand care­fully smooths and gen­tly shapes it from the out­side.

As we travel fur­ther up­river we stop at Kyan Hnyat, a small, quaint vil­lage on Ayeyarwady’s shores. As I walk along a red dirt path past dark-wooden houses on stilts, some with a few chick­ens scratch­ing around in the dirt, I hear a rhyth­mic cho­rus of chil­dren. I open a wooden gate, peek in and en­ter. In a class­room with wo­ven bam­boo walls are rows of chil­dren sit­ting at long wooden ta­bles all recit­ing aloud in uni­son from a text­book. A teacher stands lis­ten­ing in the back.

Like al­most all Myan­mar women young and old, the girls wear thanakha—swirls of yel­low pow­dery paste made from ground bark and worn on their cheeks and fore­heads both as a sun­screen and cos­metic. I greet them with the pop­u­lar greet­ing of “min­gal­aba.” Al­though ex­tremely shy, they re­spond in kind with gig­gles and smiles.

Hav­ing sailed to the port town of Katha dur­ing the night, it’s an early morn­ing visit in a bi­cy­cle tr­ishaw to the main mar­ket, a labyrinth of nar­row aisles and pun­gent smells. On bam­boo-wo­ven plat­ters are piles of morn­ing glory, bit­ter gourd, fer­mented fish, pun­gent spices, in­ner or­gans, skinned goat heads, and pas­tries cook­ing in bub­bling brown oil.

Then we visit the two-storey colo­nial home where Eric Blair, bet­ter known as George Or­well, used for the set­ting of his novel, Burmese Days. The ram­shackle two-story teak house is now a po­lice of­fi­cer’s home just off the busy main road. In the front are weeds and some dogs laz­ing around. Katha was his last post­ing in the Im­pe­rial Po­lice be­fore re­turn­ing to Eng­land in 1927, though in the anti-colo­nial novel he called the town Kyauk­tada. The British Club, also in the novel, still ex­ists, as does the ten­nis court, pagoda and prison.

As we con­tinue to sail over the next few days, I watch snap­shots of river and ru­ral life slip by. Milk-white pago­das with golden spires flash­ing in the sun­light; women and men in sarongs and naked kids bathing in the caramel-coloured wa­ter; a sin­gle file of saf­fron-clad monks walk­ing to a monastery; chil­dren in white-and-green uni­forms drift­ing slowly to school; farm­ers plough­ing patch­works of fields with oxen; a man waist deep in the wa­ter grace­fully

cast­ing a fish­ing net that opens like a fan in the morn­ing light. Time, like the river, flows leisurely.

Then the boat slows down as the river nar­rows be­tween tow­er­ing, jun­gle-clad cliffs. The only sounds are birds and screech­ing mon­keys com­ing from the un­tamed fo­liage. As the ship moves slowly in the quiet, trop­i­cal heat, heav­ily veg­e­tated tow­er­ing gorges get closer, which takes about two hours to pass. We’ve reached our fur­thest north­ern des­ti­na­tion, Bhamo.

Re­turn­ing down­stream we stop at Weima, one of 36 gov­ern­ment-run ele­phant camps in the north. Ele­phants are be­ing washed in the slow-flow­ing river, while women carry pails of wa­ter hung by yokes bal­anced over a shoul­der. Most of the ma­houts use their ele­phants to help fell teak trees and drag the logs to the river to be shipped down­stream. Myan­mar has about 75 per­cent of the world’s teak.

The next day we pull into Ma Lae vil­lage, timed per­fectly to watch a Bud­dhist novi­tia­tion cer­e­mony, an im­por­tant rite of pas­sage for all Burmese boys un­der 20 to be­come novice monks for a week or more. The boys are car­ried through town on dec­o­rated palan­quins and then, in a tem­ple, with their par­ents be­side them, have their heads shaved and change into bur­gundy monk robes.

Back in tem­ple-filled Man­dalay we pick three unique ones to visit: the finely teak-carved

Sh­we­nan­daw Monastery built in 1878; Kutho­daw Pagoda, with hun­dreds of small white stu­pas, and Bud­dhist texts carved into mar­ble pages that are each 153 cen­time­tres tall and 107 cen­time­tres wide; and Ma­hamuni Paya, one of the most im­por­tant pil­grim­age sites in the coun­try with the most revered im­age of the Bud­dha in Burma. Be­lieved to be 2,000 years old, it’s been cov­ered in tons of gold leaf over the cen­turies, ex­cept for its gleam­ing face which leg­end claims is a true like­ness of Gau­tama Bud­dha.

On our fi­nal day we sail through the prow-split­ting wa­ters to Ba­gan, our last des­ti­na­tion. Orig­i­nally the cap­i­tal of the King­dom of Pa­gan, the rulers built be­tween 4,000 and 10,000 tem­ples be­tween the 11th and 13th cen­turies. Marco Polo de­clared it as “one of the finest sights in the world.” It still is a won­der with about 2,500 mon­u­ments left scat­tered across some 80 square kilo­me­tres of flat plain.

I wan­der around this mys­ti­cal, tem­ple-stud­ded land­scape, step­ping into the shad­owy dark in­te­ri­ors of tem­ples which dis­play elab­o­rate cen­turies-old re­li­gious murals and monks pray­ing at the foot of tow­er­ing Bud­dhas. Then, as sun­set ap­proaches, I make my way to Sh­we­san­daw

Paya, one of the largest pago­das. Its ter­races are al­ready crowded with peo­ple. A spec­tac­u­lar sun­set of reds and or­anges bleeds across the sky be­hind the pagoda. Then, in the dy­ing glow of its last light, as dark­ness is about to drape the area, there is the sil­hou­ette of a woman stand­ing per­fectly still in a yoga pose at the edge of the high­est ter­race.

There is some­thing peace­ful and time­less about the scene, like this jour­ney has been, through times past in time present.

From top left, tem­ple mu­ral; stu­pas along the river Op­po­site, young Bud­dhist monks at Paya Hs­in­byume in Min­gun Pre­vi­ous page, Bud­dhist monks vis­it­ing the mas­sive, un­fin­ished stupa, Min­gun Pah­to­daw­gyi

From top left, new Nyein pots dry in the sun while a woman car­ries smaller pots; with some stu­dents shy to see a for­eigner for the first time Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left, ele­phants in the north are used to carry teak logs; two views of teak-carved Sh­we­nan­daw Monastery; gold-tipped stu­pas; rows of Bud­dha im­ages in Ma­hamui Pagoda; young monks play­ing among the wavy ter­races of Paya Hs­in­byume; in­te­rior of Ma­hamuni Paya, which at­tracts pil­grams from all over the coun­try Cen­ter, Sh­we­san­daw Paya, one of the largest pago­das in Ba­gan

From top left, in Ma Lae vil­lage a group of young Bud­dhist crim­son-robed monks; Bud­dhists study­ing re­li­gious texts in Old Teak Wood Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery in Nyaung Shwe Op­po­site, ae­rial view of Kutho­daw Pagoda with its 729 stu­pas and world’s largest book

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