Burma – On the road to Mandalay

It was early morning and still dark. The taxi driver took us to a very shady area in the outskirt of Mandalay. Dim street lights. Distant voices. He pointed us to a narrow path leading into complete darkness. “Really, that way?!” He nodded. We looked at each other and started to walk.

We could hear the voices loud and clear now. They were getting closer. Suddenly, we were surrounded. Young men in black clothes circled around us. Their eyes glowed in the night. Who were they? What did they want? I then realized. It was the crew! They wanted to carry our luggage. We let it go and headed to the boat. The sun rose and we started to drift. The adventure was about to begin.

Sunrise on the Irrawaddy River.

I bet you heard the song On the road to Mandalay by Frank Sinatra. Well, it’s actually not a road but the Irrawaddy River in Burma. It flows between Rangoon to Mandalay and has been used for ages to travel the region. My trip on the river went backwards – I started on the dusty streets of Mandalay and went to the mysterious temple city of Bagan.

Boats departs all year around and the trip to Bagan takes about ten hours. But the river gets dried up during the dry season and boats can easily get stuck in the low water. “It’s almost impossible to go upstream north of Mandalay”, the skipper said. Would we make it downstream? We were about to find out.

Two boys in the front put a stick into the water and shouted out the depth to the captain. He was navigating the shallow water with precision. It wasn’t the first time.

The first hour is the most scenic part. You will pass the old royal cities of Burma along the river. The most beautiful one is Sagaing situated on a steep hill covered of lush trees. The view from the river is something out of the ordinary. White temples and golden stupas shimmer in the morning sun. Monks doing their morning rituals. You can hear the temple bells ring all the way to the boat.

Old lady smoking a cigar on the streets of Mandalay.
Sagaing is one of the old royal cities of Burma.
Two boys are navigating the shallow water.

About half way we made a stop at Lekkapin. We walked through the small village. Wooden houses with open windows. Scenes from daily life flashed us by as zapping between TV channels. Artisans crafting a hat. A farmer on a haystack. Tea in an open living room. They watched us with curiosity from inside the houses. Suddenly a cookfight!

Burma is the least exploited country in Southeast Asia. Being colonized for a long time, it’s not until lately the country’s been opening up to the outer world. It’s like Thailand in the 1950s.

A man watched the fight from his porch. He was smoking a Burmese cigar made of leaves, known as a cheroot. He slowly exhaled the smoke. Two boys with a traditional decoration called thanaka on their faces walked by. The white paste is made from tree bark and is used widely in Burma. It is said to keep your skin forever young. Finally someone found the magic recipe.

Lekkapin village.
Lekkapin village.
Lekkapin village.
Lekkapin village.
Two boys with traditional “thanaka” on their faces.

The journey continued. A flat and lush landscape passed us by as we were served traditional Burmesian food. Lonely fishermen sat in boats and kids were taking an afternoon swim in the river. The sun was hot but a fresh breeze kept us cool. Drinks were made in the on board bar. English gin with a touch of vermouth. An air of the colonial times still remain.

We arrived just before sunset. The ancient temples of Bagan rised in front of us. The city is the most spectacular sight in Burma. Thousands of temples, stupas, and monasteries as far as you can see. Marco Polo once described it as “the most beautiful place in the world”. We indulged the moment and headed to the hotel. The sun set and the river turned purple.

Local Burmese food served on the boat.
Irrawaddy river cruise.
Sunset in Bagan.
All images © 2018 Erik Ekberger.
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