The slow boat to Sittwe

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November 14th 2017
Published: November 28th 2017
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I’d long wanted to take a boat down (or up, I wasn’t fussy, although travelling immediately post-monsoon suggested downriver would be quicker) the Irrawaddy, the age-old “road to Mandalay”, for the sheer romance of it, but the logistics involved in trying to fit in everything that I wanted to do during this trip in a vaguely logical manner did not permit. In consolation – although, realistically, I had no other option for this particular journey – I decided to take the boat from Mrauk U to Sittwe, winding along the tributaries of, and debauching into, the Kaladan River which, at Sittwe, then joins the Andaman Sea. After the excitements involved in getting to Mrauk U, a bus journey of a little over 21 hours, a serene 4½-hour boat trip sounded sublime, even if it did involve an early-ish start, the boat scheduled to leave Mrauk U at 7 am.

I find the early daylight hours in any place a fascinating time, particularly for people-watching. This time of day isn’t exactly my comfort zone nowadays – the result of too many pre-dawn alarm clocks and pre-sunrise commutes to work – but, when necessity demands it, I find it has its consolations.

Here, at the water’s edge, the day was in full lively swing, although I was sure it would subside soon after the crowds and excitement of the Sittwe boat’s departure, a thrice-weekly occurrence, had abated. With the cluster of people around the breakfast stalls, I managed to miss the ticket booth and, having walked the plank (quite literally) to board the vessel at the end of the pier, I was directed back to shore again. I reckoned it was safe enough to leave my holdall, so parked it on a seat in a bags-ing, package-tourist-with-her-towel manner, and retraced my steps. I don’t have the greatest track record of plank-walking – memories of narrow and slippery planks in Laos when I was travelling up the Mekong – so the fewer potential accoutrements for altering my sense of balance, the better. At the ticket counter, I was charged US$10 for the trip; I don’t know what locals pay, but I’m more than happy for us moneyed folks to subsidise what’s an essential life/business-line for locals going to the state capital.

Back on board, I re-joined my holdall. I had decided to take a seat on the upper deck of the two-tier boat, “upper class” as a couple of Kiwis I met later suggested. There were several rows of large heavy wooden seats, fixed together in hefty racks of three, with the distant memory of white-painted seat numbers on the back, and a couple of stacks of red plastic chairs for the late arrivals. The Kiwis found themselves in a bizarre debate with a matriarch of a decent-sized clan about seat allocation, although I couldn’t see anything on my ticket that purported to suggest a seat number, and in fact they managed not to be ousted. It was not the world’s most comfortable seat, I have to admit, but I dug out my thermal jacket, surprisingly useful as a pillow in its pouch (as I’d already discovered on the overnight bus ride), wriggled my bones around and looked back at the shore and the arrival of my fellow passengers.

I had arrived early, and only a few other passengers were already on board. At the stern of the boat, on the “ground floor”, the crew had been lighting a fire to cook their own breakfast, and perhaps to start preparations for cooking food for passengers, which I found out later was available for purchase. I decided not to avail myself, being a tad sceptical about its preparation (oh to have an iron gut!), and spaced the consumption of my bag of tiny tangerines throughout the journey. These mouthful-sized balls of vitamin C have been available just about everywhere during this trip, and are absolutely delicious. I like my fruit, but even I would normally find eating half a dozen tangerines at a sitting a bit much: here that half dozen would not even fill a saucer.

Across from me, a family was setting itself up on a rolled-out mat, much as I’d seen groups of travellers, pilgrims and revellers do around the country, producing tiffins of food and ladling out an impressive range and quantity of food for all, often camped in the corner of a temple in a relaxed fashion that I couldn’t see being replicated at St Paul’s Cathedral. Below me, across the two plain planks that were the sole means of boarding, the slow trickle of passengers continued, until, with some unseen/unheard alert, the trickle suddenly escalated, people jostling to board. A motorbike was wheeled carefully aboard – the owner walking himself up one plank, and rolling his vehicle in parallel up the wider plank – and then a second. When it came to de-board, the jostling multiplied several-fold, and, being taller than the majority, I appointed myself Guardian Of The Plank (the crew had only managed to extract one from beneath the feet of the all-too-keen-to-depart passengers) and the Order Of De-Boating until I had myself reached dry land. Older women and children took priority; the shoving men could just wait and I glared accordingly. This fortunately seemed to cause no ill-will, merely bemusement. There are things a “furriner” can get away with at times, I feel.

It wasn’t my only bolshie-ness on board, I have to admit. I had been sickened, but not surprised, by the amount of rubbish collecting at the riverside in Mrauk U where we boarded, but was even more appalled by the gay abandon with which trash was added to the river by my fellow passengers. Eventually, the worm turned. My then neighbour – there’d been a reasonable amount of “musical chairs” over the course of the journey – a bit of a wide boy, all sharp dressing and self-consciousness, had been eating samosas out of a plastic bag while
nattering to his mates. He then screwed up the bag and made to throw it into the river, at which point I stuck out my arm. “No! There’s a rubbish bin over there. Put the bag in it,” miming my words with gesticulations, and he clearly understood my meaning. I didn’t expect a result, but at least he didn’t continue with Plan A. Later, after he’d moved on from that seat, I was surprised to see him come back, pick up the bag which he’d shoved between a couple of slats, and, clearly relating the story of my intervention to his friends, went over to the basket attached to the side of the boat and put his bag inside. A girl in the group looked back at me, smiling, and I mimed clapping in appreciation. One small bag for mankind… My achievement evaporated the next minute as a small girl skipped up to the rail and threw all her family’s rubbish overboard in one chunky armful.

The journey itself was otherwise delightfully uneventful. I dozed off from time to time, in common with most of my fellow passengers, scribbled a bit of my diary, read a bit of the Book, and otherwise simply sat and watched the world go by, quite literally. We passed the occasional hamlet, little collections of woven-walled and thatched-roofed huts on stilts at the edge of the water. Water buffalo grazed beside the river. From time to time fishermen would appear and then disappear in our slow chugging wake. There were occasional ranges of hills, dotted with a golden zedi or two, in the distance on each side of us. Cattle egrets provided uneven white dots to the verdant green fields. A flock of seagulls joined us when a couple of the kids decided to throw out handfuls of the snacks that they’d bought, the birds swooping and shrieking as if we had fish on board. I was particularly taken to see one kid have so much fun with this that he begged another hundred kyat from his mother to buy more. I looked up Google Maps to see where we were, but even this app struggles with names in this part of the world. It was a glorious day, and if the seat had been even slightly more comfortable, I’d have been happy for the journey to continue. As it was, by the time we turned into the canal to the north of the main city, I was ready to move on.

At Sittwe, I’d been expecting to be accosted by taxi-drivers and suchlike; what I hadn’t expected was the degree to which they were already on board and/or leapt across the narrowing divide as we prepared to dock. My own driver found me on the upper deck just as we were turning into the canal, and, after we’d negotiated the price – “How much?” “Five thousan’”. “No, it should be two or three…”. “Four thousan’”, accompanied by a cheeky smile. “OK,” laughing, “four thousand”. We both know it’s a game that he’s going to win), he grabbed my holdall. The next twenty minutes were an exercise in keeping tabs on him as he skipped ashore and planted my bag in a distant thoun bein. Here the local tuktuk variant is half-motorbike/half-truck, with a single wheel out front and motorbike-like controls, but an open-sided, bench-lined, covered people-container on the back. As he went back to the boat to summon up extra custom, I wandered around looking for the vehicle that contained my bag. It was a slightly blood-pressure-rising few minutes until someone pointed me in the direction of a vehicle on the other side of the stramash that might politely be described as a parking lot. In all the furore of our arrival, I didn’t have the chance to watch my fellow passengers – where they went, what they did on arrival – or even to photograph our valiant conveyance. It was fabulous chaos.

I have to admit that I wouldn’t recommend you travel to Sittwe for Sittwe’s sake. I tried hard to like it, and there were glimpses of charm, but these were pushed into the background by my hotel’s uncharacteristically grumpy staff (the exception in my Myanmar experience) and the general grey sense of tawdry-ness with which my memories are shrouded. It’s a working town, that’s for sure, with little to cater for the passing tourist traffic, even in a good year. Hotel rooms are thin on the ground, and not for want of hotels. The hotels are curiously solidly booked, my new Kiwi friends discovered, and for no apparent reason. And there’s a lack of places to eat out at night; everything shuts up shop at dusk, it appears. It’s not a border town, but it has a similar sense of gritty down-and-out-ness to it.

As an insurance policy against plans going wrong earlier in my trip, I had planned to have two nights here, and pretty much exhausted what sights there were in three hours. I had dinner with the Kiwis the night we arrived at pretty much the only restaurant in town, and that was of the Burmese teahouse variety, firangis strictly not anticipated though treated with tolerant indifference. The food was tasty – Rakhine curries having more poke to them than much of the Burmese food I’d eaten to date – but didn’t entirely agree with me, so the next evening I found some E-number filled white bread and dined in my room. The market, however, was fascinating. It’s huge, and has two particular specialisms, dried fish and rice. It looked as if there was effectively a rice exchange at one end of the market, a couple of rows of dingy little shops containing nothing but bulging sacks, with the sole member of staff hunched over a desk on the phone. Dried fish is a bit of a Myanmar specialty, and I’d been introduced to it early on – not least, of course, the aroma
a welcome blast of coloura welcome blast of coloura welcome blast of colour

fishing boats at Sittwe
can be particularly carrying. Here, however, I could see the drying of big fish in action, a curiously complex process to retain the overall integrity of the fish, as I hope you can see from the photograph.

The only time I saw my hotel reception staff smile was the next morning, when I was settling my bill, and they then cheerfully sent me on my way. The airport, however, was less keen to release me. My flight had been cancelled, and I spent a couple of un-airconditioned hours waiting to see if the next flight, operated by a different airline, could be persuaded to take me (and a couple of other firangis who’d materialised from somewhere: I hadn’t seen any around town the day before). The poor check-in staff from my original flight, I did feel sorry for them: I perched on the edge of the seat where they’d parked me (behind the check-in desks, out of the way), keeping a beady eye on their comings and goings – and also, I admit, to try and reduce the extent to which my shirt was sticking to me. Every so often the nice smiley Indian one would walk past me: “Mam, please wait.” I didn’t have a whole lot of choice, and finally I was rewarded with a thumbs-up sign, “It’s OK, mam.” But it wasn’t, quite. My passport was needed, he said, so I stood up to watch as it passed from one person to another for the best part of half an hour. When it was put to one side on a check-in desk while the clerk dealt with something else, I reached out and grabbed it back. No-one seemed to notice. At the fifty-ninth minute, a further hiccup. The original airline had no record of my reservation, it transpired. This had happened to me before – at Yangon airport, as I was heading to Mandalay – so I was phlegmatic about it, simply confirming the situation with head office on the phone, making a mental note to harangue Opodo about a second issue, and dug out sufficient greenbacks to buy a replacement ticket.

At Yangon airport, my friend’s driver was waiting for me, and there was such a contrast between his happy welcoming smile and my residual impression of Sittwe that I felt like hugging him.

Additional photos below
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28th November 2017

Thanks so much
for your interestingly written accounts of your journey. I love your style and can picture what's happening in each place. Having just returned from Myanmar I particularly enjoy the places I did not get to, Sittwe is one. Wishing you further fascinating travels.
28th November 2017

Very good
You had been very good write. Thanks.

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