Published: July 8th 2012July 8th 2012
So this was it, the whole point of the 3-day plus detour from Mandalay, the "Journey as Destination", culminated in this 20h boat ride down south on the Ayerwaddy from Katha.
I had originally planned to take an even longer detour, starting from further north in Myitkina, and making several more stops along the way. However, I'd run out of time, as I'd already arranged to exit Myanmar on 10 Jul, so I could only take a truncated detour to Katha. It turned out for the better though, as I found out long-distance Myanmar government train rides and me don't mesh. Moreover, I met Chris & Marie in Katha, a German-French couple who did in fact take the 24h train ride to Myitkyina, only to find out the road and riverway onwards to Sinbu/ Bhamo (the next stops down south) were closed to foreigners due to fighting between the Kachin rebels and the government, so they had to take the train back to Katha anyway.
At this point perhaps I should explain the "fighting" bit. Apparently there are several states in Myanmar basically at civil war between the local minority groups and government. These include the Kachin state in
Cooking on the Boat
I thought I wouldn't eat anything just to be safe, but you'll be amazed what kind of meals they can churn out on such facilities. I ended up eating not one but two meals on board!
the north, the Shan state in the east, and Rakhine state in the west. Information flow on the status of the fighting is of course limited to foreigners, and what we know is only what we hear from the locals on the ground. My understanding is that the minorities are fighting for a combination of some form of autonomy in their resources-rich states, as well as against discrimination steeped in history in some cases.
Chris & Marie did say that they could feel the tension in Myitkyina, that while the locals were as friendly to foreigners as they are elsewhere, you could sense the reality of ongoing war. They mentioned feeling the palpable relief the moment they returned back to Katha. I guess some things you just can't explain reading a news article on the internet, but you can only feel walking the ground.
Anyway, back to the boat ride, a 20h slow putter along the Ayerwaddy from Katha back to Mandalay. After my painful experience on the train, I'd harboured (pun-intended) some apprehensions about the ride, but they turned out to be more or less unwarranted. The boat ride was definitely enjoyable, thanks in part to the
Eating on the Boat
Spot the odd one out!
weather that, apart from a short drizzly spell in the early morning, and some scorching mid-day sun, was pleasant the rest of the time. I'd also thought I'd be going hungry for most of the ride, even though I brought some buns on board, because I was a little worried about the food that might be available. I was pleasantly surprised however to find a very competent-looking team cooking up a storm (thankfully, not literally) on board on charcoal-fired stoves for the hundred-odd passengers, so the hunger bit was a non-starter.
On the whole, definitely a memorable experience, with great views of the riverside villages, and worth the otherwise somewhat troublesome and seemingly-redundant round-trip detour from Mandalay. I guess sometimes, you can really go somewhere, without actually going anywhere at all..
Stayed at the ET Hotel again for the overnight transit, before my last leg in Myanmar to Kalaw.
There are more photos below