Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Cruise from Mandalay to Bagan

Boarding the boat at 6:30 am

For our journey from Mandalay to Bagan, we decide to take a cruise down the Irrawaddy River. This seemed the best option when considering the alternatives of bus and train. We booked Malhika Crusies online and the company delivered our tickets to the hotel where we stayed in Mandalay.

Check in time began at 6:00 am, so that morning, before sunrise we took a taxi to the waterfront. Our cab driver did not know where to go and had to pull over and ask some strangers three times before we were dropped off at the correct pier. "There was no address for the pier, and when I got there I realized why. All along the street were docks for various cruise companies, but they were unmarked, and seemed to have been shoddily constructed to accommodate the recent surge in tourists.

We got on the boat just after 6:20, and sat on the upper deck outside while waiting to depart at 7:00 am. I took a few notes in my diary:

“Dawn on the river is haunting. Smokey clouds drape over the water like curtains hanging low in deep velvety folds. The water is the color of cloudy jade, the color of the sky – or perhaps, the sky is the color of the water. I love anything that changes, the sky, the sea, the seasons. Move me from the present, carry me forward forever. When the sky changes color so does the sea. Their color tune each other like strings in an orchestra, signaling harmony. Then the dawn pulls back its dark curtains, and releases a flash of light. Green mountains can be seen on the horizon, their tips smudged by the paintbrush of silvery clouds. Fisherman sit on rafts made of logs, with tents pitched up in the middle, only wide enough to fit one sleeping body. I wonder if this morning is unique, but I’ll never know because it is my only morning on the Irrawaddy River.

In Myanmar the rising and setting of the sun is something to behold. It’s a flashdance of color across the sky. You don’t realize it happened until it’s already over. When we walked home form the cafĂ© yesterday at 5:00 pm the baby blue sky showed no signs of changing, but by 5:30 it was as dark as a sapphire. All this happened in thirty minutes. You have to grasp the moment quickly here, because it moves faster than you are used to. The sky changes color with every blink of the eyes. It’s not un untraceable movement, its obvious with each blink that you are seeing something new.”

The boat took off on schedule and slowly made its way down the river. We passed under lone bridges connecting two sides of the river with seemingly nothing on with end. We passed the golden peaks of temples in the distance, large Buddhas, fisherman, and small huts on the water. It rained on and off throughout the journey. When it did, the tourists left unshielded upper deck and came down to their seat inside the boat. Thankfully we had assigned seating, so there was no worrying about space.

I think every single person on the boat was reading a copy of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Burma in one language or another, an observation which depressed me.

The first few hours on board were magical, but soon the magic gave way to boredom. It was impossible to see outside the window in the rain. The hum of the engine started to wear on me. The boat ride was so smooth that it put me to sleep. I napped for three hours before waking again and transcribing some notes in my journal.

Though our departure had not been delayed, we arrived in Bagan one hour behind schedule, at 4:00 pm. Being Myanmar’s most coveted tourist attraction, I expected the dock at Bagan to be something other than what it was: a muddy bank.
I assumed that - what with Bagan being the country’s most reputable and popular tourist destination - we would be greeted by a grand wooden pier, perhaps a sign in English, “Welcome to Bagan,” and a fleet of taxis waiting to carry us to our hotels. Instead the ship docked on a seemingly arbitrary edge of the river. Men in longyis trudged through the red dirt and laid down a thin wooden plank between the boat and the mud puddle. Bamboo poles were erected on either side to help balance us and we put one foot in front of the other.

We were instantly approached for “transport.” I accepted the offer of the first man who approached us. I had to haggle hard to get the price down. This was surprising because up until this point, it had been easy to bargain with cab drivers in Yangon and Mandalay.   But in Bagan people seemed sincerely hurt and even offended at my attempts to haggle. I asked the price before we reached the car. 8,00 kyats? Too much. I wanted 5,000. He said he would go down to 7,000. I said 6,000 or nothing. I would ask other drivers. He agreed on 6,000. Then we followed him to what I thought would be our taxi, but instead he started loading our bags onto a horse pulling a wooden cart! This would be our “transport.” Perhaps I should have read the Lonely Planet guide…

We sat on the back of the cart, which leaned uncomfortably close to the ground. When the horse took off we had to hold onto the edges of the cart so hard my muscles ached at the end of the fifteen minute ride. We faced backwards, watching Bagan’s dirt roads unravel from the cart’s wheels below, as though the world was being created in front of our very eyes. We watched the scene on rewind. It was an study in the faces people make as they drive. We saw only two cars on the road. The vast majority of vehicles were mopeds, bicycles, and horse-drawn buggies like ours. None of the roads were paved, and they were all horribly muddy from the afternoon rain. I knew this because I could see the imprint of the horse’s hooves with each step. 

I don't know these people

Our ride into town

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