Life on the Irrawaddy: Part one

Our boat trip up the Irrawaddy is one of the most amazing and my favorite experiences of the entire trip so far.

We were traveling like the typical Burmese person travels. The long duration of the trip meant that we had more of an opportunity to interact with locals, even with language barriers. We had the good fortune of traveling with Elmer and Ohmar, and Ohmar really took us under her wing, acting like our own native tour guide, explaining things we saw and experienced along the way and introducing us to delicious foods we wouldn’t have been brave or savvy enough to try other wise.

Life on the boat and scenery along the river was consistently fascinating and nearly always stunning (felt like I missed an amazing scene every time I left the camera in the room). And things like the boat getting stuck in shallow waters (a seasonal phenomenon) for hours at a time added an element of adventure to the whole thing.

The route

There are different ways for visitors to experience the Irrawaddy river. Apparently a pretty typical route is to start in Mandalay and go down river to Bagan. Kalya suggested that we try a route further north, where we would have the chance to see and even spend an hour or two in some small, relatively out-of-the-way river side villages where the boat would stop to drop off and take on goods.

There are different government and private ferries and boats to choose from, depending on the time of year and the water level of the river. At one point during the trip we saw two of these impressive and no doubt crazy-expensive but beautiful wood luxury liners, manned with Burmese staff and Western tourists – probably something that can be hired privately. The boat we travelled on was definitely less cushy. 🙂

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We traveled on an Inland Water Transport ferry from Mandalay to Bhamo. (Map reference:

This was the only time we chose to travel with government-owned transportation. Although the tourist ticket cost considerably more than the price Burmese people were charged, USD 54 per ticket didn’t feel like too significant of a financial endorsement of the government, and the side of Myanmar we would be able to see through this journey would be a worthwhile personal trade off.

The boat

I didn’t take a picture of the entire boat from the outside, so let me try to describe it.

It was a large, heavily used and hard working boat. It comprised three decks, plus a cargo hold at the bottom. Here’s what was on each deck.

Bottom deck

At the back was the engine room and some other rooms for the crew that were off limits. In the middle was the “kitchen”, the cook’s storage space and a couple of long wooden tables and benches that served as cafeteria, the entrance to the storage hold with a make-shift kiosk on top and around of it that had to be re-arranged every time we stopped at a port.

I’ll talk more about the food on board later, but let me say that the ship’s cook was just incredible. Wiry (he was thin but all muscle), tattooed, with thinning hair, there was still something child-like about him. He was constantly on the move, from before the dawn till late at night, chopping, cleaning and creating amazingly delicious meals on request with the most basic implements. Despite how hard he worked, he always had a smile for us whenever we happened to catch each other’s eyes, and even with no English managed to make us feel welcome.

Here’s the kitchen he had to work with: There were three ever-burning fires on the metal floor, covered by metal cylinders with openings through which to feed the fire. These basic “ranges” were topped by one massive pot for the seemingly constant rice production, another for cooking soups, noodles and the like and a big, flat wok where anything else that needed cooking got fried. There was a big plastic container full of water with a pipe fed from the river to rinse things. A simple sink (also river fed). One chopping board, some ladles for stirring and two butcher knives.

The kiosk sold packaged snacks, drinks (water, soda and whisky), tattered books, Burmese salad (more on that later, too!) and above all, tons of betel (the Burmese equivalent of the Indian paan).

Towards the front of the 1st deck were more rooms for the crew and storage space crammed with goods like stacks of rubber tires, huge bags of rice and onions, rows of baskets, the occasional motorcycle. A few of the more privileged families camped out on the floor between the stacks of wares.

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Goods on the first deck

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The little on-board store covering the cargo hold entrance. Snacks hanging from the ceiling, books to the left, ingredients for salad and beverages to the right.

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The cook (in the hat) preparing vegetables in front of the kitchen

Middle deck

This was the general passenger deck. The front half had 10 simple, narrow cabins, five on either side of the boat, which is where we had a room. Each contained two beds, one small table attached to the wall and a doll-sized, non-functioning sink. The beds were some of the most uncomfortable I’ve experienced. About two feet wide, with an ancient two-inch mattress on a hard, wood frame, they were obviously made for one person but Roman and I ended up sharing one of the bunks. I’ve admitted before that I am a wimp – the nights got so cold and rooms were unheated so squishing together in that meager space was the only way I could keep warm enough to sleep. 🙂

Still, we had it much better than most of the other passengers. The back half of the 2nd deck was simply an open space where they spent the duration of the trip. People have to bring their own mats and blankets and simply sleep on the floor. The sides of the deck are open so any wind would blow directly through. I wouldn’t mind sleeping on the floor but I think the frigid nights would have been too much for me.

The floor also had two bathrooms (one squat, one “western” style – a raised squat toilet with a wooden box on top that had a big hole in the middle) and two rooms for showering (in cold river water. I’m not ashamed to admit my wimp-nature a second time– I decided to wait until we were on dry land, in a hotel, to shower :-)).

Outside our cabins was a narrow walkway with a couple of plastic chairs where folks liked to hang out during the daylight hours, gossiping and watching the landscape roll by.

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The corridor in front of our cabin on a very foggy morning. That’s Elmer in the striped hoodie.

Top deck

A place to soak in the scenery and warming rays of the sun by day and to enjoy a cold beer while thinking warm thoughts and watching the stars come out by night, the open top deck was a great place to hang out. There was a control room at the front and parts of it were used for goods storage, but there was plenty of space to relax. Some foreigners who were on board the first day had rented a couple of rickety wooden chairs, we used these as our make shift lounge. For some stretches of the journey, a handful of hardcore Burmese passengers actually stayed and slept up there, out in the (cold, cold!) open.

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Stairwell to the lower decks from the top deck – that’s how dark it got on the river at night. 🙂

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This is the closest I got to a picture of the entire boat from the outside. This is during one of our village stops You can see the bottom and middle decks. To the left of the middle deck is where our cabin was; the other side is the open deck where other passengers stayed and slept.

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