A Burmese Adventure

Monique has the good fortune to have a wonderful Bangkok-based Burmese friend of 20 years standing.  She has traveled many times to Burma in her company, a very privileged way to explore this fascinating country.  What follows is her account of one such adventure. 

In February several years ago, my friend planned a 6-day adventure to Rakha Ing state, in western Burma, near the border with Bangladesh. Travel in this area is very restricted as flooding makes it inaccessible for large parts of the year.

Our destination was Mrauk U, the site of one of Burma’s earliest civilizations.  Our journey began with an early morning flight from Rangoon to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhaing State.  Sittwe is a pleasant provincial town, free from almost all signs of 20th century life, automobiles, and electricity among them.  Dusk is announced with the twinkling of kerosene lanterns.  In Sittwe we made the unexpected acquaintance of the sparkling “Mr. Diamond”, a charming young diamond trader who believes in wearing his inventory.  But with a dawn departure for Mrauk U the next morning, we put thoughts of diamonds out of our heads.

The only means of travel from Sittwe to Mrauk U is a five-hour ferry ride up the river, a journey back in time.  We boarded the double-decker open ferry at dawn, the excitement of the journey palpable in the brisk morning air.  Among the passengers were red-robbed Buddhist monks who travel for free in a demarcated area.  On another section of deck, Buddhist nuns in pink robes clustered.  My Burmese friend paid for the clerical lunch from our joint traveling “purse”.  If no one steps forward, a collection is taken up among the passengers to feed the monks and nuns.

No one travels alone in Burma, so our fellow passengers were family groups, with possessions and food in tow.  My three companions and I had some of the very few “first class seats”, consisting of ancient teak deck chairs with sling seats of recycled plastic rice sacking.  Everyone else claims a place on deck by rolling out a mat.

At each landing, passengers disembark and board as best they can from precarious jetties of widely and unevenly spaced teak plants supported by teak posts.  Don’t look down!   If you’re lucky, the hand-rail guys are on duty:  two men holding a bamboo pole.  Each stop sees a herd of aggressive food vendors jockeying with passengers to board and sell their ware, held aloft on tin trays.

Surveying the riverbank, there is not a telephone or electricity pole in sight.  Almost every hill, however, is topped with a golden pagoda, glinting in the early morning sun.  Not for nothing is Burma known as the Golden Land.  Human dwellings by contrast are thatch and transportation to and from the jetties is by pedal rickshaws or on foot.  All Burmese men and women wear the traditional sarong, the longyi.  Burmese men seem to enjoy an elaborate retying of their longyi every 5 minutes.  The faces of women and children are decorated with stripes or blotches of tan thanakha powder, a cooling protection against the sun.

When we docked in Mrauk U, I didn't want to leave my little deck chair.  The spectacular view of Burmese river life it afforded me was the perfect illustration that the pleasure of travel is the journey itself, as much as the destination.

I can’t wait for my next river adventure in Golden Land.