Shortly after the Orient-Express’s luxurious new ship, Orcaella, left Mandalay, we were grounded on a submerged sandbank. The manager explained that though the ship had been built with a shallow draft, the ever-changing sandbanks, channels, and water levels in the river made this almost inevitable. Guests gathered to watch the efforts to free our ship, absorb the picturesque scenery, and photograph life on the mighty Ayeyarwady (previously Irrawaddy)—the arterial river that runs almost vertically through Myanmar (Burma). A couple of hours later, we were back on course for our 11-day riverine adventure.
My interest in Myanmar began when I started research for my book, The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma. Mandalay is a city I am familiar with, and as we left its shores I was excited to explore parts of the country unknown to me. I imagined that the remote towns we’d visit would allow me a glimpse of the more traditional aspects of the country’s ethos not so visible today in its larger cities. I was also looking forward to exploring a region with intimate geographic and historic connections with India. We were headed to the Ayeyarwady’s confluence with its main tributary the Chindwin River. We would then sail upriver on the Chindwin towards the India-Myanmar border. At Homalin, we would turn around and cruise downriver to the ancient town of Bagan on the Ayeyarwady River.
Women and girls in Myanmar frequently apply the pale yellow thanaka paste to their face. This is to protect them from sunburn. Some put it all over their face, like this group of villagers in Bagan, others make elaborate patterns with it. Photo: Sudha Shah
When we reached Monywa on the second morning of the cruise, we disembarked and drove past an ornate clocktower to the extravagantly multi-hued Thanboddhay pagoda with over half a million images of the Buddha. A short distance away, a hill with a 424-foot-high gilded statue of a standing Buddha dominated the skyline. Myanmar is called the Golden Land not only for the natural resources it holds, but also for all the golden pagodas that dot its cities and countryside. In this deeply spiritual country, Theravada Buddhism shapes the culture and defines the psyche of the majority of its people. And it is particularly in rural Myanmar that this is most sharply brought home.
It is customary in Myanmar for Buddhist boys, to become novice monks for a short while. We witnessed a noviciation ceremony in the charming agricultural village of Mokehtaw. Five young boys, dressed like princes, to symbolise Prince Siddhartha before he gave it all up, came in a procession to the monastery. During the ceremony, their heads were shaved, they recited the ten precepts, were made to don the robes of a monk, and were each handed an alms bowl.
Monywa is the second-largest city in northern Myanmar, famous for its towering Standing Buddha statue. A Sleeping Buddha and pagoda of similar dimensions nearby make for an arresting sight. Photo: Sudha Shah
Over the course of our voyage, we’d see more evidence of the strong influence of religion in Myanmar. We saw maroon-robed monks walk single file for their daily alms in Kalewa and witnessed a pagoda donation ceremony procession wind its way through Mingin. In Kani, we attended a riveting nat (spirit-being) invocation ceremony. To the sound of blaring music, loud clapping, and much merriment, brightly dressed women, each clutching a bottle of alcohol, danced in front of the statue of the local nat— the Lord of the White Horse. Although most of Myanmar is staunchly Buddhist, the animistic worship of nats is deeply woven into the fabric of their beliefs, particularly in rural areas.
At every stop, a crowd gathered to witness our arrival. We invariably walked around for a bit to absorb the place’s sights and sounds. There were women and children with thanaka-painted faces, school boys dressed in longyis with Shan bags slung across their shoulders, cheroot-smoking men and women, a little boy with plastic sunglasses bobbing to the tune of “Gangnam Style”.
The ship’s doctor diligently disembarked at each stop to offer free consultations and medicines to locals. On the third day of the trip, in Moke Htaw, he laid out scores of used eyeglasses sent by a German donor. People gathered trying on the spectacles, and the delighted expression on the faces on those who found the right match was more eloquent than any word of thanks.
What astonished me in the rather conventional village of Maukkadaw was the incongruous sighting of a colonial-style pool table in a largish bamboo hut. The next evening we reached Mawlaik, a town that used to be an administrative centre for the Bombay Burmah Trading Company. The BBTC today belongs to the Wadia Group, but was originally a British company that held licenses for logging timber from forests in Burma. Suddenly the pool table made sense—it was probably a legacy from a clubhouse built for the entertainment of BBTC officers stationed in this sleepy outpost.
Cruise ships travelling down the Chindwin make a number of stops along the way, including small villages like Sittaung with just 28 huts. In this photograph of the Orcaella, the dramatic sky adds to the beauty of the scenery. Photo: Sudha Shah
At an elephant camp outside Mawlaik, we saw how the animals are employed to lift logs of wood. Oozies (mahouts), who seemed to be able to control the animal quite effortlessly with a few shouts, clucks and nudges, rode the elephants and offered us short rides. The closest we got to India was in Sittaung, a 28-hut village just 58 kilometres from the border. Agriculture is the main industry in Myanmar, and Sittaung is supposedly a typical farming community. We walked past flooded paddy fields to a hilltop pagoda that afforded a breathtaking view of the countryside in every possible hue of green.
Bang in the centre of Kalewa town we stumbled upon a plaque commemorating the India-Myanmar Friendship Road completed in 2001. Since the densely forested Purvanchal range and the Chin Hills separate the two countries, most trade and travel between the countries has historically been by sea. During World War II, however, countless Indians, British, and other Allies escaped the rapidly advancing Japanese forces by fleeing into India by land, using treacherous mountain routes.
Myanmar, like India, is a country with great ethnic and tribal diversity, and on the outskirts of Homalin, we visited a tribe that has its roots in both countries. Dressed in their very colourful traditional dress, the Nagas—once feared as headhunters—graciously welcomed us with a dance, rice beer filled in hollowed bamboo tumblers, and a variety of local food served in bamboo leaf packets.
One entire side of the writer’s cabin in the Orcaella consisted of sliding windows that afforded a panoramic view of the river, mountains, and jungles of the Chindwin valley, even from the bed. Photo: Sudha Shah
Our cruise ended in Bagan, a spectacular site of over 2,000 stupas and temples of varying shapes and sizes. These Buddhist edifices, some still used for worship, were built over 800 years ago. Although I’ve been to Bagan a few times before, it never fails to enthrall me. What moves me most here is a temple with large Buddhas crammed into disproportionately tiny spaces. The Buddhas were built by the imprisoned King Manuha to echo his state of mind.
The shore excursions generally lasted a few hours each morning. The rest of the day was spent on board. Although occasional talks, activities, and cocktail parties were organised, the real pleasure for me was in being able to relax, read, and soak in the beauty of rural Myanmar.
Mawlaik town, once an administrative centre of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company, has some lovely colonial houses. In the forests not far from the town, elephants haul logs as they have for hundreds of years in Myanmar. However, this is likely to change this year as the government makes a big push to curb logging. Photo: Sudha Shah
The Chindwin is wide, in parts still and calm, in parts rippled and fast moving. We passed all kinds of riverine traffic: tiny passenger boats with gunwales almost at the level of the river, huge bamboo rafts with huts perched on top, and barges carrying teakwood and other cargo. The landscape varied from green gorges to swaying palms to verdant fields. We saw solitary huts emitting gentle wisps of smoke, small villages comprising bamboo homes on stilts, and towns with multi-storeyed buildings. All this interspersed with enchanting glimpses of glittering pagodas. The sunsets were magnificent, and it often looked as if the horizon was on fire. I often recalled George Orwell’s phrase “earthly paradise” which he used to describe the Myanmar countryside.
Service aboard the Orcaella was courteous and gracious. The chef was a friendly Thai lady who designed a varied menu which catered to the needs of individual guests, including vegetarians. The only drawback for me was the almost total lack of Internet, TV, and telephone connections. I remember watching the river go by one day, and thinking that if the whole world was being nuked, we’d still be gently gliding on, and the last to know.
When I first visited Myanmar in 2005, it had been under military rule for over 40 years and appeared to be in a time warp. Hardly anyone owned a mobile phone, and cars were predominantly of 1960s vintage. With its shift to democracy in 2011, there has been a deluge of foreign investors and imported goods. In its larger cities, roads are clogged with shiny new cars and shopping malls. Mobile phones, the Internet, and Western luxury brands are everywhere. In fact, today, Myanmar is one of the world’s most rapidly changing countries. The Orcaella’s slow journey up and down the Chindwin River offers visitors a glimpse not only into a Myanmar that is still relatively unchanged, but also into the soul of this enchanting land. A soul, I ardently hope, will remain untouched in the years to come.
Appeared in the Febraury 2014 issue as “Slowly Up And Down The Chindwin”.
Map: Devang Makwana
OrientationThe Chindwin River is the largest tributary of the Ayeyarwady (formerly Irrawaddy) river in Myanmar and flows entirely within the country. its source is in the Hukawng Valley, where it is called the Tanai River. as it exits the valley, the river is called the Chindwin.
Visa & Getting ThereIndians require a tourist visa to travel to Myanmar. Travellers must submit an application form (available online at myanmedelhi.com/visa) with the required paperwork and a return ticket to the Myanmar Embassy in New Delhi (Nyaya Marg, Chanakyapuri; 011-24678822). The visa costs $20/₹1,300 and the processing time is two days.
It is possible to fly from a major Indian city to Mandalay via a single stopover at a Southeast Asian hub like Bangkok or Singapore. With a layover, the minimum travel time is about nine hours.
SeasonsThe Chindwin River runs through a region that tends to fluctuate between warm and hot, while remaining constantly humid. The day temperature during summer (Mar-June) can goas high as 35°C, while the temperature during winter (Nov-Feb) rarely dips below a pleasant 20°C. During the months of June, July, and August the region receives heavy rainfall, and it continues to rain moderately all through September. There is sporadic rain during the rest of the year.
Chindwin River CruisesCruises on the Chindwin River are scheduled in September, after the rains. They usually start from Mandalay and can be 2 to 15 days long and of varying levels of comfort. The Orcaella, operated by Orient-Express, is the first luxury riverboat running down the Chindwin River (www.voyagesinmyanmar.com/web/rtm/orcaella.jsp).
is the author of "The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma", a biography of the last king of Burma, King Thibaw, and his family.
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