Life on the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar

June 8, 2011

By Carol Holt

MYANMAR - River Traffic

River Traffic

While travelling to Myanmar, we were stunned to see one of our fellow travelers fall. She was immediately tended to by a village nun, practicing what looked like Reiki, with the care and attention one would expect of a western practitioner. The nun had been working in the kitchen, and dropped everything to come to her aid. It reinforced my belief in our common humanity, our caring for one another.

We were a group of sixteen older adults on an eighteen day tour of Myanmar. We especially enjoyed a three day cruise on the Irrawaddy River, over 1200 miles long, connecting Mandalay In the north to Yangon in the south. We boarded the RV Pandaw 1947, a classic converted steamer in Mandalay and finished in Bagan, the land of four thousand temples. It was an opportunity to observe life on the river, as well as embarking to meet the locals.

Life on board was very comfortable. Most of our time was spent on the sundeck, either taking the sun, or relaxing in the cooler open air lounge with refreshments available at all times. We enjoyed dancers from the Mandalay Arts School in the evening under a beautiful sunset. The food was plentiful and varied. There were sixteen cabins, air conditioned with en suite shower and washroom facilities. The information provided stated,”between January and March a kind of harmless insects, but not mosquitoes, can invade the ship. Our staff will do their best to keep them away.” I could not imagine how this was possible, but we quickly learned to turn the lights off before leaving our cabin!

Traffic on the river was interesting, from small fishermen’s boats to larger boats transporting logs or other cargo. We also saw floating rafts made of bamboo that held a monk statue (the monk being guardian of the sea) under a canopy. The raft is sent by someone in hopes of protecting a son, perhaps going on a journey, and is usually sent from the north. When seen by others, flowers and prayers are offered and the raft is sent off once again, ending its journey in the south. I think of this continuity as a community prayer, much in the same way as religious people pray for one another, including those not known to them.


Medjet Take Trips Not Chances

We visited three villages along the way, Mingun, Sagaing andYandabo. At Mingun, we visited a home for the elderly female residents. It was a one room dormitory style residence, and open to those considered poor, and who had no family. The women were sitting or lying on their beds for the most part and quickly combed their hair to make themselves presentable. They had big smiles for us, and each wanted to have their picture taken.

Sagaing Young novice with earrings

Sagaing Young novice with earrings

There is religious freedom in Myanmar, although 85% of the population follows the Theravada school of Buddhism. In our travels, we saw many children robed; boys in bright red robes and girls in pink, who were leading a monastic life for one week, after an ordination ceremony. Families saved money often for years, to celebrate their eldest son’s initiation. Because it was costly, they would “do” all their children at the same time. The children’s heads were shaved, to symbolize their entry into adulthood and their temporary rejection of the world. Girls have an earlobe piercing ceremony called nahtwin, after which they receive their first pair of earrings.

Yandabo is a picturesque village that specializes in pot making, where the peace treaty of the first Anglo-Burmese war was signed, approximately February, 1826. We left the Pandaw via a plank, assisted by the ship’s crew. We were welcomed by the village children and offered a hand climbing the steep muddy banks until we were on the flat ground. Yandabo is a village of 1500 people, who are very much tied to the land.

Kiln in Myanmar

Kiln in Myanmar

We quickly came upon a husband and wife team with a regular potter’s wheel; he turned the wheel by moving his foot from his knee back and forth on a board while she threw the pot. The pot is then dried for three days to make it leather hard, so it is workable. The pot is then paddled to enlarge it, after which the paddle marks are smoothed out. Every family has a board with their own carved design, which is pressed around the pot. The kiln is a huge mound of straw and wood holding 3,000 pots and shared by all. The pots are in the kiln for three days. They are usually exported to Mandalay, a larger center, as they get a better price. A lot of the pots are broken as it is difficult to get the exact thickness required. The broken pots are smashed into very fine pieces and put on the muddy paths in the rainy season. We also saw a wall of broken pots, our guide said,”to hold the jungle back”.

Examples of Tha-na-kh applied. Photo by Frédéric Gloor

Village life was very interesting to me. There were was the usual sights and sounds of sleeping dogs in the hot sun, chickens, pigs, cows, food being cooked and sold, villagers eating together, stands with drinks and local crafts. There were men in longyi’s (sarong like lower garments) as well as western dress. On several occasions we saw adolescent boys playing chinlon, some in shorts and others in rolled up longyi’s. Chinlon is a game in which a small woven rattan ball is kept airborne with the feet, very much like soccer. Females and children have used a product called Th-na-kh for over 2400 years. The bark of the Tha-na-kh tree is used as a cosmetic on the face and arms, as a sign of beauty, but also as a sunscreen. The root, leaves and bark are used for laxative and cardiac pain, epilepsy, leprosy, malaria, ulcers, headaches, pimples, and freckles. (Later in our travels, we were offered the opportunity to have Tha-na-kh applied to ourselves, and I received many compliments from the locals)! A fellow traveler was wearing bright red lipstick which had great appeal to the villagers, but unfortunately for them, she had none to give.

Betal leaves and pots

Betal leaves and pots

We saw some villagers chewing the betel leaf, which they obviously enjoyed, but leaving their teeth and mouth red and seemingly, unhealthy. Our guide demonstrated to us how the leaf is used for better vision. A hole is cut in the middle of the leaf which is applied to the eye at night in such a way that the eye is not covered. The leaf absorbs the heat around the eyes. This is done every night until vision is improved.

We saw a medical clinic, school and monastery in Yandabo. The wooden entrance of the monastery was four hundred years old, with some restoration work to the rest making it one hundred years old. Decorative inserts that probably came off British ships were a surprise. There were six beds for monks in the living quarters.

Most interesting was their system of communication. There was only one telephone in the village, and a PA system to announce a phone call for that particular villager.

All in all, it was a very relaxed atmosphere in all the villages. Children selling their wares were respectful, not pushy. Even so, we found ourselves saying “Toby”, their word for “no, that’s enough now”, and the seller would withdraw.

I very much enjoyed the Irrawaddy river cruise, both watching river traffic and meeting the very welcoming villagers.

Travel Information for Myanmar

– Eldertreks offers an 18 day trip for travelers 50 and over. All meals, accommodations and tour guides are included. They can be reached at 1-800-741-7956 or the Eldertreks Brochure.

– A visa is required for entry into Myanmar. Their requirements frequently change, so it is important to get current information.

– Shoulders, chest and legs need to be covered when visiting temples and monasteries. Shoes and socks must be removed. Since many sites are large, I would recommend a “toughening” of the feet before you go.

– Do not engage in political conversation, as you risk compromising a local.

– Refer to Foreign Affairs Canada for up-to-date travel advisories.

About the Author Carol Hoyt is a casual registered social worker with Alberta Health Services, after retiring two years ago. She travels extensively, and particularly enjoys learning about different cultures. While at home, spending time with family and baking are priorities.

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