Friday, 7 December 2012

Not reading on the boat in Burma

The Nadima Mandala started life as a steam-driven barge on the mighty Irrawaddy River, before her conversion 30 or so years ago into a passenger vessel.  Her low deck lies close to the rushing brown water--she draws very little, a matter of necessity on the Chindwin--a river be-deviled by shallows, sandbanks and, after the rains, treacherous whirlpools that will make a whirligig of the stoutest vessel.  Her two-story  dented breadbox superstructure gives her a top-heavy look--the Dolly Parton of Burmese river barges.  It is clear from the start that Captain Tham Pay knows how to handle his wide-hipped, flat-bottomed ugly duckling.

There are plenty of holiday boats on the Irrawaddy between Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan--more than ever now the sanctions have been lifted and tourists are flooding in.  From toy day cruisers to over-lit, air-conditioned gin palaces, the Irrawaddy is accessible to all, but the Nadima Mandala is taking us up the Chindwin River from Monywa to Mawlaik; a journey where no tourist has gone before...or at least not in recent memory.  

Our comfortable little boat has (aside from seven cabins, galley, wheelhouse, dining room and afterdeck), a pink refrigerator and twelve maroon plush wooden deckchairs of a peculiar design that resembles a cross between a preying mantis and a snapping crocodile (you get in and out at your peril), from which to watch the world pass by.  

Chuntering upstream at the furious rate of 6 knots, we zig and zag like an inebriated dowager duchess, slowing to feel our way across the choppy shallow water with our metaphorical skirts held above our ankles, looking for the deep, safe channels where we can pick up speed again.  

Because there are few roads, most of the traffic moves on the water in long, elegantly curved narrow boats carrying freight, or passengers, or both, with occasional great rafts of teak logs, tied to bamboo platforms and submerged beneath the water, guided downstream by busy, self-important tugs.  On the banks where the forest does not quite meet the water, there are fields of peanuts and millet, corn and rice.  Small villages of teak houses on stilts appear briefly, the steep banks carved by the river, with the knotted exposed roots of the great banyan trees making comfortable seating or an impromptu playground.  Wherever we stop we are welcomed into people’s homes, objects of curiosity in a refreshing reversal of roles (though embarrassingly, we tend to make babies cry and dogs howl).  

As we move further upstream the green, densely forested mountains rise up and draw near; on a bend in the river an ascending line of gleaming pagodas climb a ridge, like the polished white vertebrae of a sleeping dragon.

After three days we reach Mawlaik, a small town as far north as we will go. It is full of relics of its colonial days, with a neat grid of tree-lined dusty streets, a clock-tower, a fire-engine of remarkable antiquity, rows of intricately carved teak houses, a good selection of tea-houses to while away the time, an extensive covered market and on the out-skirts of town,   a golf-course of sorts near the grand, high-ceilinged teak houses of the former Burmah-Bombay Trading Corporation officials.  These sad, haunted houses lie slowly decaying in the damp heat, their incongruous brick chimneys memorials to a now largely irrelevant past.

At every stop we have made we are quickly greeted by officials who, having had no experience of tourists in an area where access has been restricted for many years, have no idea what to make of us, never mind what to do with us.  Our papers with the all-important ‘seal’ of bureaucracy are scrutinised again and again with varying degrees of suspicion and disbelief, though the curiosity always wins through...eventually. 

In this deceptively peaceful, sleepy paradise of gentle warmth and friendliness, of tightly knit, deeply traditional communities celebrating the Buddhist lent in all-important run up to the Festival of the Full Moon, of the bright new hopes of the National League for Democracy workers we meet in Mingkin town, it is easy to overlook the harsh realities of decades of brutal oppression and human rights violations by the generals who took over the country in 1962.  We receive a sharp reminder when returning downstream we stop at the last town before the Chindwin joins the Irrawaddy, re-entering the world of pylons and billboards and cars and a reality that is harsher than we ever suspect.  At the main pagoda in the town the festival is in full swing, with sweating dignitaries in ivory and gold silk lunghis waiting to greet a Government Minister and start the 24 hour competition to weave cloth for the monks’ robes, lines of poor waiting to be fed and hundreds of men, women and children making their offerings and crowding the complex to celebrate the holiday. Just before sunset we leave the town, moving on to moor for the night a few miles away; an enormous full moon rising like a searchlight upriver, as the blood-red sun extinguishes itself downstream.

The next day we learn there was a demonstration in the town shortly after we left, with several protesting monks burnt to death.  There is no mention of this in the newly ‘free’ press, though a couple of days later the government makes an official apology for bringing in troops to handle the peaceful demonstration.  The injuries and deaths go unreported by the Myanmar media.