Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A Slow Boat To Mandalay

Mandalay. The only thing that comes to mind is a hotel in Las Vegas. Who knew it was an actual place. A bit of searching and you can find out how this town was strategically important during WW2 for the Japanese and they vowed to defend at all costs, as armies say they will do.

You can take a 6-hour bus from Bagan to Mandalay. Or you can take a 12-hour slow boat upriver. Naturally, you choose the boat ride. My journey began at 4:30 AM, yes 4:30 AM. A pre-arranged Tuk Tuk would pick me up and take me to the Jetty for the 5:00 AM boarding and the 5:30 AM launch. Early mornings seem to be a bit easier for me now. I am just used to it after a year of 5:30 AM wake-ups in Bangladesh. The Tuk Tuk arrived on time and I tossed my hotel room key on the desk. It was dark, cold and eerily quiet. There were a few street dogs that eyeballed us as we drove by. I am sure they were even thinking WTF human, the sun does not rise until after 6:30 AM.

I was the first to arrive. The overly cheerful guide eagerly took my pack and escorted me to the boat. It was not glamorous, nor was it a relic from the war. It would do just fine. I found a comfortable seat and slept for an extra hour. I did not hear the other passengers board and did not feel the launch.

I did wake up just in time to catch the sunrise with silhouetted boats against the backdrop. A new day begins on the Irrawaddy River. The boat is designed for 75 people. Today there were 9. An elderly couple from France, two women from the USA, four twenty-somethings fro Australia and me. There were pleasantries and good mornings but this felt like it was going to be a trip of solitude for everyone. 

The sun warmed the deck and I took off my sweater, jacket, and hiking pants and tossed on my shorts and flip flops. I found my book, Burmese Days by George Orwell, his first novel and it was being sold everywhere in Bagan. My phone was fully charged with a great assortment of music and I had my headphones at the ready. I had another nap instead. This time deck side.

This was going to be a 12-hour journey and there was no rush to do anything. A bit of idle chit chat here and there but all 9 of us seemed to find our place on deck and drifted into our own little space. The morning came and went. At noon exactly lunch was served, which was included. So much food. I was given food that could have fed four people. Plates of noodles, rice, vegetables, chicken and a side plate of papaya and pineapple. I ate as much as I could, then had another nap.

Morning became afternoon became evening. The day drifted along as we passed villages, golden topped temples, fishermen and what looked like dredging barges. The way they were sluicing I had suspected they were looking for gold. A quick google when I got online confirmed that these barges were mostly illegal but they are not touched by the government due to corruption. You pay the military government enough of a bribe and they will leave you alone.

As we neared Mandalay the sun was setting. it was a full day, sunrise to sunset pushing upstream. After chatting with one of the girls looking after us, she explained that the crew hits a hostel for some sleep and return to the boat at 4:00 for the return trip back to Bagan. The next day there would be 40 passengers. Busy I said to which she replied, the return to trip to Mandalay is 75, a full boat. We were just 9 and joked about how lucky we were with our slow and quiet journey that was sparse with humanity.

We arrived and the jetty was packed with pushy Tuk Tuk drivers and taxis, as expected. I started to get off the boat, found the gangplank and immediately tripped and fell face-first to the gasps of the dockworkers and deckhands. What a jackass. I was so focused an looking at the landing zone that I was not watching where I was going. I got up, found the first cab and was gone. I would deal with the trickling blood coming down my leg when I got to the hotel.

It was a $30 day which included my Tuk Tuk pickup, the cruise, breakfast, and a massive lunch. There were snacks and beer available if you wanted. The boat crew were all able body and the service crew was university girls who were accommodating without being overbearing. It was slow, easy and enjoyable if you can just sit and enjoy the world around you for 12 hours.

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