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"Villaged out" along Myanmar's Chindwin and Ayeyarwady Rivers
By Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai
Expectations were running high, when we boarded a bus equipped with a breakfast box and leaving the popular Chatrium Hotel near Yangon's Royal Lake behind. We headed straight to the airport to catch an early morning flight with Air Bagan via Mandalay to Kalaymyo, a town in remotest Myanmar at the foot of the elusive Chin Hills near the border to India. Our English speaking Burmese guide "Daniel" introduced himself and off we flew to arrive in Kalaymyo already at 9 o'clock in the morning.
Looking on a new Myanmar map, we realized that Kalaymyo is a strategic town, where the only highway passes out of Central Myanmar to the border town of Tamu in order to reach India's northeastern provinces. To follow to the far up north of Myanmar only the wild Chindwin River is there. The terrain is hilly and forested. So we boarded two very old Japanese buses to drive to Kalaywa in the east to reach the valley of the Chindwin, where the embarkation on board the RV Katha Pandaw took place.
The RV Katha Pandaw is one of the latest additions to the ever growing PANDAW fleet. Since 1995, Pandaw ships have pioneered the great rivers of Southeast Asia and running now on the mighty Mekong River in Cambodia and Viet Nam as well as in Myanmar. Each ship is built in brass and teak by local craftsmen and has ultra shallow drafts that enable to ply into unknown waters. Each vessel is some 60 meters long with a more than 11 meter beam. All ships have cabins on a main and upper deck, saloon, dining place and an observation area. All Pandaw ships have a crew between 15-25 members under European management. Special international health and safety standards are maintained.
After our first daily lunch on board the RV Katha Pandaw, we already went ashore for sightseeing and took a walk through Kalaywa with its 20,000 inhabitants, markets and quaint wooden architecture. In the evening, Captain U Maung Soe and the entire crew invited to a welcome cocktail and the first fine dinner on board. The adventure started next morning.
The Chindwin River rivals the more famous Ayeyarwady River in beauty and romance. It is navigable for some 380 miles and even shallower than the Ayeyarwady. But during the annual monsoon season from July to October it is flowing faster to form whirlpools and uncontrollable eddies. Actually, the Chindwin River excursion can only be managed during the high water levels in August and September with experienced local pilots on board. Furthermore, it is too risky to run at night.
Our first leg of the river cruise went upriver from Kalaywa to Kindat, a stretch of some 44 miles. Note that Myanmar has changed most of the old British location names, but still keeps to the mileage system to measure distances! In the morning we visited the charming river village of Gazat and reached Kindat in the late afternoon. It was here that in 1911 the German explorer couple, Christine and Lucien Scherman, was welcomed by the British Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Grant Brown, who resided there in his formal administration place. Today the local life still seems unchanged.
From Kindat next morning we continued to Yuwa village, where the Yu River drains the Kubu Valley. The walk was muddy but exciting, passing typical wooden Burmese family cottages. Life here goes on undisturbed supported by a healthy domestic economy. Rice fields abound in the shadow of a myriad of Buddhist pagodas. People are all outmost friendly. In the evening, we reached the village of Sittaung, where was the final resting place of a number of the colonial Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) steamers - a scupper there in 1942, when the Japanese had occupied the country.
On Day 4 (September 4), we reached the ancient Shan (Tai Yai) enclave of Thaungdut, which in British times still had a ruling prince (sawbwa) complete with a teak wood palace and court. A charming lady keeps her ancestors in old photographs. An impressive hill pagoda can be visited during a glimmering sunset. Finally, on the next day, we arrived in Homalin, which is 47 miles upriver from Thaungdut. Actually, the port town of Homalin was the northernmost destination on our Chindwin exploration and is home to a large Muslim community. It is the gateway to the upper part of the Chindwin River up to Hkamti, where the well-known exotic Naga tribes have there jungle settlements. It was a wonder to find a functioning Internet Caf้ in Homalin.
As we only stayed for two hours in town, we left Homalin to the village of Shwe Pyi Aye some 19 miles downriver, where we moored for the night. South of Homalin the Chindwin Valley is sparsely populated and small villages can be reached only by boat. So next day, we passed the village of Paungbyin to walk around the bustling Strand-Road. In the village of Aukthaung we had a pleasant afternoon walk before continuing to the village of Khawe to overnight.
On Day 7 (September 7), we reached the old British administrative township of Mawleik with a population of 50,000 inhabitants. Some dilapidated colonial bungalows and mansions survived. Some churches and Chinese temples compete with Buddhist temples and pagodas, as we enjoyed a Myanmar "tuk tuk" drive through the town. In the afternoon, we continued to the village of Shwe Taung and moored overnight at Gaung Hti Village after a run of 87 miles on the river. We were "villaged out" and enjoyed the fine food for dinner as usual with many glasses of red wine and a birthday cake.
Next day, on the long way to Monywa, we passed two marvelous villages of Mingin Township, where we visited a beautifully carved teak monastery in Kan Village and another monastery complex in Kyi Taung Village to admire its intriguing gold lacquered paintings. In the evening we arrived in the town of Monywa, where modern civilization had reached us again.
On the following day we spent our time for sightseeing. In the morning we visited the outlying Phowin Taung archaeological site by coach to inspect mural paintings and Buddha statues in several niches and caves built inside the limestone cliffs and dated between the 14th and 18th centuries. An afternoon excursion near Monywa went to the famous Thanbodhi Temple with its million Buddha images. Nearby can be seen one of the longest reclining and standing Buddha images in today's modern world - next to a high pagoda to climb.
On Day 10 (September 10), we reached the confluence of the Chindwin River with the Ayeyarwady River, where the river widens and the forested hills give way for more farmland. Small fishing boats with primitive sails abound. On the horizon, volcanic Mount Popa can be seen, which is dominating the dry zone of Myanmar and the pagoda-studded plain of Bagan. The visit of Bagan is a must in every Mynamar travel itinerary! In a short afternoon tour, we visited the most impressive temples and pagodas, which were mostly built during the 11th to 13th centuries. In the evening, a traditional puppet theatre was shown on the upper deck of our ship.
Next day, we visited the golden Shwezigon Pagoda in the morning, one of the four tooth relic pagodas, which guard Bagan from all main directions of the compass. Also, a visit to a lacquer ware factory in New Bagan was part of the extensive sightseeing program. There was a silenced atmosphere on board, when we left Bagan for good in the afternoon and were cruising upriver again towards Mandalay, the last royal city of Burmese history.
To make a long story short, we passed the pottery village of Yandabo featuring a school and reached the landing place of Shwe Kyet Yet opposite the amazing Sagaing Hill on Day 13 in the morning. There followed a coach excursion to Mandalay to pay respect to the famous Mahamuni Buddha, whose bronze statue is covered all over in gold leaves. In the afternoon, we visited the old royal capital of Ava, which had returned to village life again, while the sunset was watched upon the unique teak U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. In the evening, a classical dance performance was presented on the ship by students of Mandalay University.
Early next morning we finally left Mandalay towards Kyaukmyaung, where big glazed water pots are produced in closed up kilns. In the early evening, our ship passed the 29 miles long "Third Defile" of the Ayeyarwady River. Geographically, the Ayeyarwady River rises high up in Myanmar's Kachin State and winds its way some 1,350 miles down to the Indian Ocean. Bhamo is the most northern point for larger river vessels and is only a few miles away from the border to China. The river's course is constantly changing and passing three defiles or gorges on its way to the nine-armed fertile delta area. Sandbanks constantly shift and the channels are mostly ill-defined.
On our way short off Bhamo, we had chances to experience the river at interesting market places, such as Kyar Nyat, Ti Gyaing, and Katha. Especially, Katha is one of the biggest teak wood logging towns and is the setting place of George Orwell's international bestseller "Burmese Days" book. An orientation tour by horse cart was in order. An old Baptist church and the fire brigade is still there. An elephant camp is operated nearby.
After Katha, on Day 17 (September 17), we reached the village of Kyun Daw, which is a island village, where countless pagodas prevail - just in view of the forested and hilly entrance to the 8 miles long "Second Defile" of the Ayeyarwady River. Next day, we passed through the fascinating and narrow gorge to watch the cliff of Parrot's Peak. Arriving at the new bridge near Sinkan, our passionate captain took a turn to return downriver again back to Mandalay, but not to miss to visit other sophisticated places, such as the village of Inn-Ywa, Tagaung - an old royal capital of the Pyu Culture - and last not least Mingun, where the Burmese King Bodawpaya wanted to erect the tallest pagoda of the world at the end of the 18th century. The pagoda was never finished thereafter, but the biggest ringing bell of the world can still be seen in Mingun.
Back on the Shwe Kyet Yet Jetty near Mandalay, our final night of the cruise had arrived. The captain and the crew gave an outstanding farewell cocktail and dinner reception. More than pleased and mesmerized during the 3-week river cruise, all the guests hoped to come back one day to Myanmar and, if possible, to join another Pandaw cruise. Nothing lasts forever, but there are always new opportunities to take.
In the early morning of September 21 (Day 21) and after a last refreshing breakfast, guests were transferred to the new international airport of Mandalay to fly back to Yangon or travel to other destinations in Myanmar. A real adventure was over - only to highly recommend for future travelers to come. To quote the poet Rudyard Kipling:
"Come you back to Mandalay, where the old Flotilla lay."
Reinhard Hohler is a GMS Media Travel Consultant and an experienced tour leader based in Chiang Mai/Thailand. For further information, please contact by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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