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AseanAffairs Magazine May - June 2011





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Reinhard Hohler
 The author finally goes north to the gorges and origin of the mighty Irrawaddy.

 Having cruised the mighty Irrawaddy several times in the last 30 years, I was determined to finally take on the most adventurous part of the river from Mandalay to Bhamo.

As my school friend, Herby, from Karlsruhe in Germany was joining this trip, we met in Yangon on the evening of March 5, 2011 to celebrate his 64th birthday in the Sky Bistro at the 20th Floor of the Sakura Tower downtown with breathtaking panoramic views toward the Golden Shwedagon Pagoda, which towers majestically over the city.

The night in Yangon was very short, as we had to leave our temporary residence, Daddy’s Home, very early in the morning to take the train from Yangon Railway Station, which departed at 5:30 a.m. We had only booked First Class seats for US$22 each, because we spent the whole rail journey in the elegant and comfortable restaurant car. After a two-hour ride we reached the town of Bago, where we missed seeing the Golden Shwemawdaw Pagoda, which is several meters higher than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

Passing the fertile rice plain of Bago Division, we had a long stop at Taungoo, where a lot of teakwood logs waited for transport. All the stations and bridges we passed were heavily guarded. At 5 p.m. we arrived at Myanmar’s new capital Naypyitaw, where people moved freely in the new railway station. The town seemed to be busy, as the 48th Myanmar Gems Emporium 2011 was scheduled to be held at the Mani Yadana Jade Hall March 10-22. We continued farther into Mandalay Division, which is actually the heartland of the Burmese people.

Finally, we reached Mandalay after the 385-mile journey just before midnight. There was nothing to see around midnight in Mandalay, the seat of the last king of Myanmar, who was sent into exile to India by the British in 1885. We took a $2 taxi to the downtown Nylon Hotel, where our boat tickets had been left. Luckily, the hotel manager had reserved a twin room for us, but for $20, it was overpriced. The same went for the $5 taxi ride to the Gaw Wain Jetty at the end of 35th Street. Every Monday, Thursday and Saturday, the boat leaves Mandalay for Bhamo at 6 a.m. We got cabin No.6, but then had to wait for the boat to depart until mid-day because of engine troubles.

Mandalay Port is a fascinating place to watch life on the riverbanks, where thatched bamboo dwellings rise. Women, with earthen water jars on their heads, and running children can be seen everywhere, while men are up or downloading a myriad of riverboats, including crowded ferry boats and smaller fishing boats.

There is absolutely no need to hurry. The real luxury is time. For $2, a meal of rice, curries and vegetables proved tasty. Tea is offered freely, while Myanmar Beer is for the wealthy. The people are friendly and treat strangers very politely. Soon I was in a conversation with a medical student from Mandalay University, who was heading for home in the north for a vacation.

When our crowded, double-decked diesel-powered passenger boat finally left the shore, it was 2 p.m. and we headed towards Mingun - on the west side of the river in Sagaing Division.

We passed the huge Mingun Pagoda, which was guarded by a pair of lions but had been destroyed by an earthquake. Afterward, we passed the white marble mountains north of Mandalay and approached the first of three gorges of the Irrawaddy, which line the next 64 kilometers of the river.

We passed the pagoda of Singu and a new bridge 40 miles north of Mandalay and stopped at 8 p.m. for one hour in Kyaukmyaung of Shwebo District in Sagaing Division. Night was falling.

The next highlight of the river voyage was the town of Tagaung the next day, which is Myanmar’s oldest capital along the Irrawaddy River, 115 miles north of Mandalay. Like the ruby-producing town of Mogok, Tagaung still belongs to the Pyin Oo Lwin District of Mandalay. After Tagaung, the river enters Sagaing Division and passes an industrial estate. Just before sunset, we reached the port town of Tigyaing 130 miles north of Sagaing, where the medical student left the boat. During the night we continued to Katha for a two-hour layover.

Katha is 160 miles north of Sagaing and is well known due to the residence of famous British writer George Orwell in the 1920s. Four guesthouses line the river bank such as San Ye Aye, Kant Kaw, Anna Wah and last but not least the Irrawaddy Guesthouse.

When the boat left Katha in the early morning, Buddhist monks were already on their morning rounds.

Our next stop at 2 p.m. was in Shwegu, a port town located in Kachin State. It is only 30 miles west of Bhamo, but we needed another night on the boat to reach our final destination. We left Shwegu at 4 p.m. and approached the second gorge of the A tour boat makes its way from Mandalay to Bhamo.

Irrawaddy, which is an 11 kilometer stretch of rugged beauty with abundant wildlife and forested hills. We passed Parrot’s Peak and the “Lorelei” Rock, which resembles its counterpart on the Rhine River in Germany. A new bridge is being built at Sinkan, where the Myitkyina to Mandalay highway passes. For the last night on the boat, a party was in order and we were invited by a businessman from Bhamo to visit his Gin Xing Restaurant there after arrival.

On the third day of the trip, March 10, we arrived in Bhamo, 185 miles from Mandalay.

Here the Irrawaddy is more than 9 kilometers wide and the last gorge north of Bhamo near Sinbo is 56 kilometers in length. It is the most dangerous of the three gorges and as the water level in March was at its lowest, we decided to go by bus to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State.

After disembarking from our riverboat, we were driven into town to settle in at the luxurious Friendship Hotel for $20 a room. It is not far from the main market and the boat jetties. In the hotel we could also book our onward journey by bus from Bhamo to Myitkyina for $10 a seat. This six-hour stretch of the road is actually part of the legendary Ledo-Road, which was built at the end of the World War II to link India to China via Myitkyina and Bhamo. Bhamo itself is a busy market town and a gateway to China’s Yunnan Province, where for many centuries mule caravans plied the road to Tengchong and Dali, carrying raw silk from China to exchange for Burmese salt and cotton. ..............

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