by Donald McFayden
During the winter past I got itchy feet and wanted to get on a plane and go somewhere – anywhere. Calder & Lawson Tours were offering a trip involving riverboat travel on the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River in Burma which sounded just up my street. So when 10 travellers set out in mid-October I was one of them. It was a diverse group with some very experienced travellers and led by Kevin Palmer from C&L Tours to whom all problems were solvable.
Myanmar/Burma was a surprise to me as having been a British colony I expected development along New Zealand lines. Quite the reverse. It is very much a south east Asian country with methods that would have changed little in centuries. There are hundreds of thousands of acres under cultivation growing rice, peanuts, sugar cane, beans and maize with sizable exports made. Nearly all the cultivation and the traction (ground working and transport) is provided by Indian cattle and some water buffalo and all other labour is provided by the human body. All planting, weeding, harvesting threshing and winnowing is done by hand so no one is unemployed in the country areas. Cottage industries are widespread and very labour intensive, producing all manner of silk, marble, metal, wooden and other items for sale. It made a great change to see produce that did not have the ‘Made in China’ notice on it, which made sales a lot easier. Most of it is done in what seemed to be poor lighting and seated on the floor and often doing the finest of etching or weaving but being happy doing it.
The rural people live largely in double story dwellings made of bamboo and palm leaves with occasional corrugated iron roofs. The family sleep above and the cattle live below, there are also a lot of pigs and chooks around and every house has a fence made of split and sharpened bamboo – very effective for keeping things in or out. In the urban areas the fences become much more elaborate and use wrought iron, stone, brick, concrete and there are literally miles of them everywhere. Rural cooking is done in the backyard with a simple type of boiler and steamer which uses wood to burn, electricity is present rarely and some bottled gas is about. Under foot was sandy which may turn muddy in the wet season. Where accessible the river was the washroom for both the body and the household wash. The locals preferred the river water for drinking over local well water. They would stand a bucket of the muddy looking product overnight and in the morning it would be highly palatable and clear as all the mud would have gone to the bottom. Nectar for them, poison for us!!
In suitable places the industry was terracotta pottery – very attractive and from small items, kitchen pots up to 50 gallon urns and very ornate, some of them. They seemed to be just lying around but were lined up in regular rows so somebody had them all in hand. They were all made on a potters wheel which was turned by hand, or foot, or both — very clever and the making of the big pots was really watching experts in action. They are air dried and then fired in a kiln. They go in grey and come out orange or the colour of terracotta.
The local markets were a novelty for us with everything up for sale. Not much meat but many varied types of fish, fresh and dried and paste. They have little or no refrigeration so drying is used a lot and they are very good at it. Once dried, commodities can be stored for long periods and are easier to transport.
Myanmar, generally, is an untidy, looking country with rubbish scattered in a lot of places. The urban buildings are grimy and likely to have greenery sprouting from unlikely places. This changed in spectacular fashion when in Buddhist temple/pagoda areas. These were spotless and rubbish free, and in many places clad in gold leaf. The cost of building and maintaining some of these places would be colossal but seems to be provided without quibble, all aimed at the worship of Buddha. I don’t think we were ever out of sight of a Buddhist building all the time we were there. At Mingun, north of Mandalay, we saw, reputedly, the biggest brick building in the world, the Mingun Paya, which is some 80 metres by 80 metres and 50 metres high. Originally it was to have been 3 times that height but the enthusiasm faded, and an earthquake did a lot of damage in the 1800’s so it just sits there and dominates the area. Not far away was the Mingun Bell, at some 90 tons reputedly the world’s biggest working bell. Pagoda/temples are many and varied and rarely out of sight.
The military run the country and are largely funded by their major export which is natural gas. This is piped direct to China by a 2000km pipeline and also to Thailand. There are some 500,000 in the military and in our travels to a little bit north of Mandalay we saw perhaps half a dozen of them so they may be further north where tourists are not welcome. We were told that if one seriously argues with the military one is liable to disappear without trace and no questions asked or answered.
Terrier type dogs are ever present and treated with great respect — people and vehicles go around them and they do not seem to appear on the menu.
Long motor boats with noisy single cylinder motors were numerous and the boats were made of teak planks. These were very effective and lasted for 20 years without much maintenance. They used an old natural sealer based on tree sap to provide protection.
RV Pandaw II, the boat we travelled in, was comfortable and the crew could not do enough to ensure our well-being. They moored the boat by running part of it onto the mud bank and then mooring it to a large pole which was pulled into the mud by the on-board winch. They then cut a series of steps for us to climb the banks and were on hand to provide assistance to all and sundry. We had to remove our shoes at all pagodas and crew were on hand to give us towels to clean our feet when shoes were put on again. They also provided hand sanitiser for everyone when entering the dining room where varied and tasty meals were part of the experience.
The whole experience was a breath of fresh air in my life and I am very pleased that I went.