May 13, 2013
The RV Orient Pandaw on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Picture: Angela Saurine
WE HAD only been off the boat a few minutes when we came across the first of what our guide San would term a “very lucky and special opportunity” for the day.
On the road in front of us, a line of people are walking behind a hot pink coffin decorated with gold trimmings as part of a Buddhist funeral procession.
Before we have time to digest the sight, a procession for a monk initiation ceremony passes in the other direction.
The lead jeep is decorated in tinsel, with a tray of bananas and a small Buddhist statue on the hood.
Young girls and boys dressed like princes and princesses in elaborate costumes with bejewelled crowns sit on plastic chairs in the back of the utes, surrounded by family members.
As we step aboard the side cars of the waiting tri-shaws and ride through the small town of Magwe, children with big smiles and their parents and grandparents stand alongside the road outside houses and shops waving and calling “mingalaba”, which means hello.
Monks walking down the street in Magwe in Myanmar. Picture: Angela Saurine
In a country such as Myanmar, which was closed off to the world for many years, foreigners are still a novelty in many places. Some children hold their hands over their mouths and giggle at the sight of us.
We suddenly realise we are part of our own “tourist procession” and I feel like the Queen waving back.
When we arrive at Myat-thalon temple, built of solid gold bricks, San asks us each our birth date and works out what day of the week we were born using a special calendar to find our animal sign in the Burmese zodiac.
I discover I was born on a Monday, meaning I am a tiger, so in the temple I pour water over a Buddha statue above a tiger.
It is a surprisingly pleasant and calming experience.
The monk initiation lasts for two days. We spot the young novices again in the temple, with the celebration continuing in a marquee near our boat afterwards.
After dinner on board we stroll up to watch. Locals sit cross-legged on bamboo mats while two comedians and a band entertain.
Other than one comedian repeatedly hitting the other over the head with a cymbal we don’t understand what is happening, but it is great to hear the intermittent raucous laughter from the crowd.
Suddenly the lights go out – a common occurrence in Myanmar – and we Westerners become the entertainment while a new generator is sourced.
After a while we head back and find we are being escorted by three military police, there to protect us.
The new generator arrives after we leave and music continues until the early hours of the morning. At the break of dawn the next day we hear a gong, signifying the day’s celebrations are to begin.
We wander back up after breakfast and find several young boys crouched outside the marquee having their heads shaved by their mums and aunties, flowers in their hair, with disposable razors. Siblings tip water from silver buckets over the boys’ heads.
A novice monk having his head shaved as part of his initiation in Magwe. Picture: Angela Saurine
The women’s faces are painted with a yellow-ish cosmetic paste known as thanaka, which is the ground-up root of a tree and is used to lighten their skin, protect them from the sun and as perfume.
One boy sits, eyes closed, as locks of black hair fall on to his knees and the ground.
It’s a rare moment in travel when I am moved to tears, but I find myself welling up to be witnessing such a momentous moment in a young Burmese boy’s life.
The wide, shallow Irrawaddy River starts in the Himalayas and flows south for more than 2000km to the Indian Ocean.
We travel north along what Rudyard Kipling dubbed the “road to Mandalay” aboard the 60-passenger teak riverboat, the Orient Pandaw, a replica of one of the flotilla of steamers that plied the river in the 1920s and ’30s, before being sunk in World War II to stop the Japanese getting their hands on them.
The river is the lifeblood for millions of Burmese and travelling by boat is a great way to witness traditional life and visit small villages which see few foreigners.
We sit in cane chairs on the deck and watch the sun set behind gold, pink and white Buddhist temples, known as pagodas.
We watch as men bring ox-drawn carts down to river to wash the animals while families bathe together in river at sunset.
It is the height of the dry season and the temperature is over 40C, and I am tempted to jump in with them.
A woman with her face painted in thanaka with a Pagoda in the background. Picture: Angela Saurine
We have another fortunate encounter on the way to the small town of Thaket-Myo, which is not even in our Lonely Planet guide book.
As we ride down the dusty street on a horse-drawn cart, we come across a Nat (spirit) ritual taking place in a tent by the roadside.
We are warmly welcomed inside and offered chairs and shade.
Ladyboys who are spirit mediums dressed like palace courtiers with gold crowns dance in a circle while wide-eyed children sit cross-legged in the front row. Money is pinned to the mediums and they sniff trays of fruit being used as offerings.
Afterwards we explore the markets where people selling dried fish, chillies, eggs, fish paste and coconuts smile and greet us as we pass.
A jovial woman selling flowers comes up and touches the skin on our arms, laughing as she compares it to her own brown skin.
When we arrive at another village, Tan Kyi Taung, a band is rehearsing on the river bank for a troupe of elephant dance villagers who later perform for us.
Four boys dance on top of an upturned wooden fishing boat, taking turns to do a happy little jig before jumping or doing a backflip into the water, then crawling back up to do it over again. I stand watching them for ages, transfixed by the pure joyfulness of their play.
In Bagan, we watch a row of boy monks line up to collect rice in bowls from the villagers outside their riverbank houses. The boys will take the food back to the monastery.
Bagan is the most famous archeological site in Myanmar, with more than 2000 temples built in the 11th and 12th centuries.
We climb the steep staircase to the top of Schwesandaw pagoda, where we can see the temples dotted across the misty landscape.
After several days visiting pagodas each special in their own way we are at risk of being “templed out”, but sweet and funny San is so passionate and proud of his country’s treasures, his enthusiasm is infectious.
Myanmar is bordered by China, Thailand, Laos, India and Bangladesh and its delicious food is a fusion of these cuisines. We dine on grilled river prawns, green curries, sweet and sour fish, mixed vegetables and tropical fruits such as watermelon, pineapple and papaya.
The other guests are mostly well-travelled Australians, many of whom have cruised on the Pandaw in Vietnam and Cambodia previously. We share tales of adventures in places such as Bhutan, Papua New Guinea and Borneo over dinner.
The tourism boycott of Myanmar, put in place in 1996, was lifted three years ago when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and the country, recognising the need for change, moved from a military to a democratic government.
About one million tourists visited last year up from 300,000 in 2010 and while in many places tourists are a novelty, in others vendors will follow tour buses around for the day on motorbikes in an attempt to sell their wares.
It is one of those places you should visit sooner rather than later.
The writer travelled as a guest of Cruiseco.
Go2 – MYANMAR
Singapore Airlines flies to Yangon via Singapore. Ph 13 10 11 or see singaporeair.com
Cruiseco offers 11-night fly, cruise and stay tours from late June until late April from $4999 (including flights). Check the website for special discount offers.
Ph (02) 9492 8520 or see cruising.com.au
When to go
Peak season is from October to February. March to May can be stiflingly hot, but as it is summer holidays there are more children around and more monk initiation ceremonies taking place. The rainy season is from June to August.
Myanmar or Burma?
The country was named Burma in the 19th century but was changed to Myanmar by the former military rulers in 1989 the same year pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest. While the United Nations recognises Myanmar as the official name, democracy groups prefer Burma.
Is it safe?
There is still unrest in many border areas between minority groups and government forces that broke out after independence, but these are not areas tourists generally travel to. See smartraveller.gov.au for the most up-to-date information and register your plans before you leave.
Credit cards and ATMs are new to Myanmar don’t rely on them. It is best to take as much money as you think you’ll need in US dollars (new notes with no creases) and change for small denominations of local currency when you arrive. Some hotels and shops ask to photocopy the front and back of credit cards when used, which many visitors do not feel comfortable with.