Life on the Irrawaddy: Part three

I could probably write pages and pages more about our time on the boat, but for numerous reasons, this has got to be the last post on the topic. Here’s as much as I can write about it while having my morning latte by the pool at our Thai beach hotel. 😉

The sun

Each sunrise and sunset we saw from the boat was just stunning – there was nothing you could do but stop and watch it’s progress and each time I had to notice yet again just how massive it appeared on the Myanmar horizon. Most times I would try to capture the moment with my camera; of course none of the photos convey the awesomeness of the scene. 🙂 Still I keep trying, so there are some photos below…

My favorite sunrise of the entire trip was from the very first morning, when we woke at an ungodly hour, hung out on the dark streets of Mandalay (The Burmese government is not great on providing things like street lamps) till Ohmar miraculously managed to find us a taxi (the hotel had forgotten to arrange it and the sleepy desk at the clerk couldn’t help us at 5am; it’s not like there was a number to call for a cab company or anything organized like that).

The drive to the dock was cold, dark and misty. We caught occasional glimpses from the back of the truck of they city coming to life – monks in red emerging with their alms bowls, the beams of a truck or bus shining through the dark, a shop owner beginning their day with sweeping the walk way in front of their store. It was still dark when we arrived. A broad stairway under sweeping trees led down to a dock at which our ship was moored.

Still sleepy, but excited, we dropped our things in our cabin and then began exploring the fluorescent lit boat until it cast off. We had discovered the top deck by then, and that was where we stayed as the shores of Mandalay began to recede behind us and the horizon began to take on a soft glow. A crescent moon was in the sky, reflecting in the quite waters of the Irrawaddy. Lights and sometimes small fires punctuated the dark shore. The wind on our faces was cool and damp and invigorating. Slowly the scenery became more rural looking, with fields and huts appearing in the increasing light. The sun seemed to rise in slow motion but when it did it arrived huge and golden and magnificent, coloring everything in its path in rose-gold tones, making a landscape that was already amazing even more stunning.

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The moon and what I believe is Venus over Mandalay as the boat pulled away that first day

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The horizon beginning to change color

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First sunrise

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The sun warms the amazing shoreline. The red structure is an abandoned buddhist pagoda base outside of Mandalay – would have been massive if it had ever been finished…

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Watching the sun set from the top deck

The trees

Another highlight of the scenery was the trees. We saw so many trees along the shore that were just jaw-dropping for their height, breadth and sheer beauty. Often times there would be little villages underneath their sheltering canopies. I just couldn’t get enough of them and of course took far too many pictures every time one would catch my eye. 🙂

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Village under a tree

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Check out how broad that tree’s roots are. For perspective, the little colored spots on the shoreline are people…

At one point we passed an area where teak logs were being brought to the river for transport down stream. Teak wood is a major export for Myanmar. The logs we saw were massive, the circumference often nearly as high as a man. They must have been impressive as trees! Unfortunately, a lot of the wood is cut and sold illegally.

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Getting stuck

We got significantly stuck twice during the ride. It was probably a major pain for a good amount of people, but we were in no hurry and were loving being on the boat, so we got a kick out of it.

The water level on the Irrawaddy is lowest in the winter time; there are certain routes that were even closed while we were there because they were too shallow to navigate. Our crew knew the river well but still had to be careful of sandbanks.

It’s a funny sound – the gentle scraping of sand along the bottom of the ship like a strong hiss – and then suddenly the boat just stops. Everything goes quiet for a second and then there are the footsteps and voices of crew and passengers trying to figure out what’s going on, shouting across the boat and laughing at each other.

The first time we got stuck the longest and most effectively. We spent the night basically parked on the sand bank because apparently the water level increases in the morning; the crew thought we’d have a better chance of getting free then. Unsticking the boat involved sending an unlucky few crew members into the chilly river with some huge logs and a chain to create a kind of winch. The log was pushed into the sand until fast, the chain attached to the log, and then cranked by a motor on board in an attempt to turn the ship.

The process was fascinating to watch. Even at the early hour, there was a captive audience of most of the ship’s passengers. It took a couple of hours and lots of shouting back and forth from the crew on the top deck to the poor unfortunates shivering in the shallow water but eventually it worked and we were on our way again!

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Passengers watch as the crew brings the log and chain into the water. Notice that the woman is wearing a winter coat…

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The crew hard at work. The water is wide, but shallow…

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Watching the progress from the top deck. That’s one of the captains in the middle.

The food – Burmese salad recipe

I mentioned earlier how good the food on board was; in fact it was some of the best we had in all of Myanmar. My favorite snack that I could not get enough of was the salads the little kiosk sold. There were two types – pickled tea leaf and ginger. The rest of ingredients for both salad were the same, only the base varied. Both were great but the ginger version was my personal favorite. I hope I can recreate this once I have a kitchen again!

Here are the ingredients as I understood them from watching and talking with Ohmar:

– Finely sliced ginger (best with very fresh ginger, prepared by slicing and soaking it for 1 – 2 days in salt water)
– Thinly sliced fresh cabbage
– Sliced tomato
– Special Burmese mixture of fried beans and peanuts that is super tasty
– Peanut oil (sesame would work too I think)
– Some sort of vinegar I think – maybe rice wine vinegar?
– Peanut powder
– Dash of salt
– Lots of raw, sliced garlic cloves
– Generous topping of sesame seeds

Put ginger, cabbage, tomato and bean/peanut mixture in a bowl. Add oil, vinegar, peanut powder (incredible flavor – this makes the dish!), salt, mix everything thoroughly together with your hand (Burmese style) or a spoon. Put into serving bowl, top with tons of garlic and sesame seeds.

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The different bases for the salad. On the left is the pickled tea leaf, on the right ginger

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Don’t ask me what the bean/peanut mixture is called. I saw it later at a market in Bhamo – this is what it looks like. If anyone knows what it’s called or where in the West I could buy it, let me know! 🙂

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Tea leaf salad, ready to be eaten. 🙂

Snapshots, other bits and pieces

I loved the different smells on the boat (with the exception of the bathrooms…), especially on the bottom deck. The brown and green smells of the river – water, mud and plant life. The rubber of the tires, the bags of onions in the sunlight. And for some reason, the smell of freshly ground pepper. Still not sure where that came from. 🙂

The porters were always great fun to watch and I especially enjoyed how they joked around with each other and with the crew.

How quiet it was. We passed a lot of boats on the river but often we were the only ship in sight and on land we rarely saw cars. There were no planes to speak of in the sky. It was all just incredibly quiet and incredible. Amazing was night time when we would go for stretches with NO lights from shore; just the boat’s search light tracking the edge of the water as we moved slowly along. The sky on clear nights was phenomenal…

I really enjoyed watching the crew. They were a serious, somber, solid bunch during the day but at night they would get jolly with the help of plenty of whisky and water. I love that they listened to illegal broadcasts from the BBC, as well as to some of the most bizarre music…

Ohmar has the gift of making friends with everyone and she got in with the crew, who kept an eye out for the endangered river dolphin for us. They sighted them a couple of times and called us, but they had always disappeared by the time I made it to the top deck.

As I mentioned earlier, the nights were cold, cold, cold. It was always a bit of a struggle to get warmed up in the morning but what really helped was the free steaming pots of green tea that were on the table. I’d have my three-in-one coffee for breakfast and then down cupful after cupful of the scalding, delicate tea. Such a comfort on those chilly mornings.

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Green tea and the view at breakfast

Other random photos

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The crew used a bamboo pole to test the depths of the water, especially after we got stuck…

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Farm lands, small village… The friendly villager and her child (hard to see but she’s on the left in the foreground) watched and waved as we passed

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Beautiful riverside pagoda and temple

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