Four days on the Irrawaddy

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Asia » Burma » Northern Burma » Myitkyina
October 7th 2010
Published: October 7th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

Sept 7
Wandering around Myitkyina is very tame after dicing with death on the railways. Walk along the river and people keep calling me over to drink tea and chat. Meet a man from Yunnan who only stays in Myanmar for his children. Chatting seems to be the big activity here.
Struggle with post and internet, spend an hour getting into hotmail just to find some postcodes. Feel very internet deprived.
Decided I wanted a pedicure but no luck until I find a ‘beauty saloon’ on the way to dinner. It’s a marathon, involving buckets of blue goo, salt scrub, pumice, oil, massage, much poking of nails and eventually cutting of nails, though I have to request this. Finally do polish, which doesn’t dry properly but I need to eat.
Restaurant has no drinks menu and they don’t bring what I ordered, so not happy. They have no vegetable dishes and I end up with vegetable tempura which is not nice. Go to bed feeling queasy. LP said this was a good restaurant. Humpf.
Next day, ferry! The ‘terminal’ is a plank of wood lying across some mud. I have to edge my way around to the entrance on a ledge, wearing my pack and holding onto the roof. Legs dangle above a floor arrangement of planks and water. Woman tries to sit next to me and she spits on the floor of the boat. Thank God someone in charge tells her to go elsewhere. Not very comfortable boat, but it’s only one-third full and people keep getting off, which is good. I hate a crowded vessel.
Wizened fag-smoking monk gets on. I offer him food, but I think he wants cigarette money, at least that’s what I think afterwards. I’m not giving him cash so he can throw more butts in the river.
We reach Sinbo in about three hours and it’s not even 1pm. It’s a pleasant village, with water buffalo in the main ‘street’ and two hours of electricity in the evening. The ‘guest house’ is a basic affair with a water reservoir out back, and some kind of padded mat on a frame for a bed. The owner goes off to find some local dignitary who handles immigration and the two of them fuss over paperwork in ledgers for a while.
Am led on the 5min walk to the guesthouse by a young guy who hangs around. The owner says I should give him money for carrying my bags, except he let me carry them so I don’t see why I should give him anything.
The main dining room has a wall devoted to posters of Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne.

Later on I go for a walk and see a man off the boat - he’s gold prospecting and I meet the local English teacher who gives me ‘Bamar salad’ and takes me on a village tour on her motorbike. We meet the school headmistress, then eat Bamar doughnuts or ‘couples’. A woman is cooking them by the side of the road at the market where I bought a bunch of bananas for about 300 kyats (30 cents).
I thought the couples were quail eggs, but I think there are several items that are cooked in this type of pan with its half-sphere depressions. Batter is ladled in for the couples, then doused with oil, as most food is here.
It’s a quiet evening with the guesthouse owner, his mate and enough electricity to power a fan. Bed is really hard so I don’t sleep much. Fireflies and lightning are good though. Also the stars are incredible. Finally I see the Milky Way.
In the morning the teacher returns and gives me a shirt, then takes me to see school assembly. I’ve been up for hours and it’s only 9am. Trundle off to very basic wooden boat which doesn’t leave till 11am. There’s a big storm on the river which is a bit scary, and all the bags of rice and sticks (?) get moved into the covered area along with more and more passengers. At one point there’s a pig. It’s incredibly uncomfortable and people keep wanting to sit on my pack.
When we get to Bhamo I am not in a good mood. Cab drivers leap onto the boat and start hassling me so I yell at them to back off. One takes me to the Friendship Hotel where there’s supposed to be ‘sizzling hot water’ according to LP. LP is talking crap again. I get a nasty room with a nasty shared bathroom for $7. They want $20 for an ensuite in this god-forsaken backwater. No way. You can get a decent room in central Phnom Penh for $6!
Eat at two LP suggestions. One teashop serves huge tepid dumplings which are OK, the Indian place has chicken that is like old goat hoof. Wake up with the usual gas pains and explosive extrusions. Oil and bacteria here do not agree with me.
I am fed up with boats and want to get on the first bus out of Bhamo, but there are no buses. Only a plane on Sunday (it’s Thursday, September 9). My only option is the government ferry, which will take 36 hours. I don’t think I can take any more rudimentary transport, but the ‘fast boat’ only goes once a week.
For $9 I get a space on the ferry deck - well two spaces - backed by a wooden platform where lots of men sleep. In the photos my head is surrounded by feet. There are hundreds and hundreds of people on this ferry, hundreds and hundreds in my section and there are more floors and sections on this rustbucket. One wave would finish it I think, but on a river you can always see the shore. Possibly I can even swim to it.
After ten minutes on the ferry my bum hurts and I’ve had enough. I have nothing to read, and as usual I am sitting next to a pushy peasant woman who does not respect my space. She soon shoves off fortunately and a woman who can speak a little English presents herself. It’s raining and the poor sods at the edge of the deck are getting wet. It’s all open on this boat. I just dread having to use what may pass for bathroom facilities. My pack is against the platform behind me so I can lean on it as a kind of chair.
Su Su Lay, my new English-speaking friend, likes to chat. Her friend has a child who looks very suspicious of me, but I win him over with a paper plane game, and then a kind of tennis using my fan and a piece of cardboard. A gorgeous little boy is sitting to left. He’s very friendly and by the next morning is sitting in my lap. I try to involve him in the games but he is not very co-ordinated.
The ‘toilet’ is truly horrendous, a wet filthy mess where you don't want to touch ANYTHING. But I only use it twice. Get off at Katha, where Orwell was stationed in the ‘20s, and use a bathroom there. Next stop means treading though sludge to shore so skip that. Am surprised to find I nod off in the afternoon. Somehow time passes.
Sleep a little, breakfast on tooth-rotting sweet chai and doughnuts. Get the doughnuts because chai seller has no change. Play with kids some more and arrive early in Mandalay after only 30 hours! I am thrilled to get a clean room with running water at the Royal.
I cannot believe how uncomfortable and dirty that ferry was, and yet I survived. I even snoozed a little, bearing in mind that not being able to sleep in strange beds let alone strange ferries was something I had to come to terms with when planning to travel.
It took almost a week to get to Myitkyina and back and in that time there has been a train derailment and extended interaction with some of the most uncomfortable boats ever built. It wasn’t always pleasant, yet you only get good stories when stuff goes wrong. As for that Princess Margaret feeling, yes that is one of those things which you just can’t bung onto MasterCard. And to think I organized this all myself … I believe I am entitled to call myself a traveler now.


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