Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | December 21, 2013

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part one

The "national" highway of Myanmar

The “national highway” of Myanmar

Three years ago I visited Myanmar and spent a month among its gentle people and on various not-so-gentle rattly, bumpy and decrepit methods of transport. Then there were elections and Aung San Suu Kyi was released, and there was some government reform. Many changes have taken place in the “Golden Land” in the past two years, as I saw when I recently returned.

Some changes are good – the Burmese seem less fearful, more cheerful and better fed. Some changes are less welcome, such as the increase in traffic and the soaring prices. Myanmar was comparable to say, rural Thailand price-wise when I was there, I don’t think there are any $7-a-night guesthouses left any more. It’s now considered an expensive destination, and in peak season you need to book ahead. The first visit I went at a hot, damp time (September) and there were about ten tourists in the entire country. I ate in one restaurant near Bagan and the owner almost cried he was so grateful to have a customer (I was the only one).  I felt bad for him, struggling to keep his business going, but I think it’s easier now.

On my second visit, it was still hot and damp, being August, and the country was a bit busier tourist-wise, but up north, foreigners were still definitely a novelty.

The assignment

A magazine asked me to go to Burma and write a story about the Ayeyarwady River, the “national highway” of Myanmar, partly because I already had some experience with this mighty waterway. In 2010 I went north by railway from Mandalay, the main city of Upper Myanmar, and was the “only tourist lady on the train” – only one foreigner but several accidents. Despite the train falling over and having to get off it and hike to another one, I reached Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state.

A report of that trip is here on the site – this train journey is probably not a good idea for nervous travelers, or those who don’t like being deprived or air-con and dining cars, those who don’t enjoy being incredibly hot and uncomfortable – well most people really. But I was literally treated like minor royalty, which generally only happens when you are writing a story about something and people are sucking up to you because you are a journalist.

No one on the train knew I was a journalist, and I had no plans to write about it, but after the unpredictable course of events, how could I not?

On the way back south I experienced a local “ferry”, boarding by a gang plank to a ledge, inching round to the open sides while holding onto the roof (with luggage) then sitting on a plank above eddies of dirty water and next to monks wanting cash to buy cigarettes. Needless to say, I was the only foreigner aboard. That day ended by a night sweating on a hard mat in a village with two hours a day of electricity, in a guest house with dirt floors, no bathroom and yet a shrine to Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears. Still the stars and the electrical storms – and the fireflies! – made up for that. Well nearly, I was pretty tired the next day for the next chunk of river time aboard a “canoe” with a pig, bags of sticks and far too many passengers, bobbing about in a storm I did not think we would survive. Some travelers pay thousands to go on “adventures”, that day of excitement cost about $12.

I was glad to arrive in Bhamo, a trading post 50 miles from the Chinese border, which was full of mud and pushy tuk tuk drivers. Having had enough of boats, I wanted to get on a bus. But there are no buses for foreigners out of Bhamo, so considering the state of the buses I was allowed to take, I can only imagine what horrors on four wheels these were.

Choices out of Bhamo were limited. There was one flight a week – four days away – or the public ferry to Mandalay. After 30 hours sitting on the ferry deck, I was mighty glad to reach the city, and the Royal Guest House, which in 2010 was cheap and friendly and was a safe place to leave things. I’ve seen recent reviews criticizing this place, and sadly due to increased prices everywhere it is probably more expensive than it should be. But I stayed here three times, and left my computer there when I headed north. One review was whining about lack of Wifi, which indicates to me this idiot understood nothing of Myanmar: internet is still in the Dark Ages there, but that doesn’t stop you appreciating the country. If you have a problem with that then don’t go. Of the six weeks I spent in Myanmar, I probably used the internet about six times. Most of the time it simply wasn’t available. Many websites are difficult to access, though gmail and facebook for some reason usually work.

Anyway, the ferry had departed at 6.30am, so of course departure anxiety kept me awake most of the night in the mouldy-bathroomed Friendship Hotel. Still, as a foreigner (again the only one), I had a choice chunk of deck against a platform where sleeping men framed my head with their feet; when it rained the poor sods at the edge of the boat got wet.

Ferry good: View of the deck from where I was sitting, I had a prime spot

Ferry good: View of the deck from where I was sitting, I had a prime spot on the journey to Mandalay

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