A trip down the Irrawaddy River – Part 6 – Burmese Days in Katha, the final leg to Mandalay

On February 19th, we three Chris’s woke up in our guesthouse by the water in Katha, ready for another day of potential adventures. The Chris who had cycled with me outside Bhammo decided to take off on his bicycle for a 70km ride to another town after breakfast, so we said our goodbyes and wished him well. The other Austrian Chris spent the day walking around town with me before we caught a boat to continue our journey downriver.

At one point, we walked past a primary school during recess – as soon as one child spotted two caucasians walking nearby, he sounded the alarm and they all rushed to line the fence to say hello. This photo does no justice to the situation with which we were faced: hundreds of children lining this fence all the way along, giggling and screaming and wanting to shake our hands and say hello:

We also passed the local prison, which is one of the buildings apparently mentioned in George Orwell’s book, Burmese Days, which he wrote while he was stationed in Katha:

After a walk through the market looking for a cap to protect my head against the sun, we stopped for tea with some older gentlemen, one of whom spoke a little English from his schoolboy days. This is one of his circle of friends, who spoke no English but was really friendly and photogenic:

After spending the day walking around town, eating, and drinking tea, we headed to the ferry ticket office and bought tickets for the 3 day boat ride down the Irrawaddy to Mandalay. I splurged on a cabin room ($50 for 3 days), and Austrian Chris paid for a deck space ($7 for 3 days, sleeping on the outside deck with your own sleeping bag, etc). I spent a lot of time with him out there, but whenever I got really tired or if the bugs were attacking, I headed to my cabin to sleep or relax in privacy.

This little boy had terrific eyes which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera. His parents were really friendly too:

Three typical views from the boat:

One nice surprise on this trip was seeing, on two separate occasions, the nearly extinct Irrawaddy River Dolphin. In recent years, locals have been taught not to harm this rare small dolphin, which they call a big fish, but their numbers are still ridiculously low. This photo is a bit spotty as it’s enlarged from a shot taken at a fair distance:

At one stop, we were able to disembark on wooden planks to buy some food from these local cooks:

A couple more typical views from the boat:

One interesting thing I had never seen until I spent time in Burma are these big logjams floating downriver with people living on them. These are not the floating villages that you find on lakes in other parts of Burma and the world, but a means of transporting timber downriver. Still, they have a number of people on each one, small shacks, and sometimes livestock on board:

At one point on our journey downriver, we slowed down at what seemed to be an arbitrary point along the riverbank and the skipper ‘crashed’ the corner of the ferry into the land. I got up to see what had happened and realised he had done it on purpose, to let a few people off with their stuff:

As we approached Mandalay on the final day of our three day trip from Katha on this ferry, we passed the famed Mingun Paya, which would have stood over 150 metres high if it had been completed. Note the massive crack running down close to the left side, from an 1838 earthquake:

Pulling into Mandalay, people were drying laundry on the cement riverbank:

And this is what I looked like after roughly 5 weeks of not shaving, with my new cap and glasses to protect against the sun – yikes!

We pulled into Mandalay on February 21st around 1pm. I spent the day walking around town again, using the internet, and trying to find a bookstore selling English books. That evening I caught a small overnight bus from Mandalay to Bagan, arriving there in the early morning. Bagan is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been – as such, in a couple of days I’ll be posting 42 photos from my day and a half stay there…

A trip down the Irrawaddy River – Part 5 – Bhammo to Katha

On the morning of February 18th, we got up early to catch a boat to Katha. The Kiwi (James) and the German (Burghardt) decided to fly out of Bhammo so they stayed behind, leaving me and the two Austrians named Chris (who didn’t know each other until a few minutes before I met them in Myitkyina) to continue on our journey.

We first climbed into a boat with only a couple of seats, which took about half an hour to take us to the boat that would take us the rest of the way.

This second boat, with plenty of seating, was bright yellow and relatively comfortable for a Burmese river boat. There were a couple of Burmese soldiers on board and they were happy to let me take a photo of them. I feel it’s important to remember that the Burmese military is a terrible institution which carries out unbelievable acts against both Burmans and minority ethnic groups in Burma, but that doesn’t mean that every individual soldier is a bad person. These two may have blood on their hands, or they may not. Most people who join the Burmese military do so because it gives them a somewhat stable source of income and provides a bit of protection to their family.

As usual, I took lots of photos from the boat as we zipped down the river:

These are three Burmese army trucks, part of a larger convoy of trucks carrying troops and supplies from one place to another:

Buddhist monks bathing at the side of the river:

Our boat’s engine cut out during one of our stops, and it took about an hour to get it running again. It cut out again as evening approached at another stop, not far from our final destination, Katha. They couldn’t get it going again, so they unloaded the new motorcycles on board and some boys drove them off to the town with a message to send another boat back for us.

While we waited, I took a few photos on the shore:

Our stranded boat:

Cows eating hay outside the small family hut where we broke down:

The rescue boat arrives:

Both boats have been tied together, so the blue boat can lead both boats to Katha:

Dusk as seen from the roof of the blue ‘rescue’ boat:

We arrived in Katha in the dark, checked out several guesthouses, settled on a fairly shabby place, went out for food and a walk around town, then headed to sleep.

A trip down the Irrawaddy River – Part 4 – Bhammo, Kachin State, Burma

Our trip from Sinbo to Bhammo went fine, even though we did get stuck a few times on sandbars along the way. We quickly caught a tuk-tuk from the pier to the budget hotel we’d heard about, cleaned ourselves up, ate supper at a restaurant, and went to bed.

In the morning, I went cycling with one of the two Austrians who were both named Chris. He had brought along his mountain bike from Europe and was using it to get around towns and occasionally to get from place to place when the bus/train/boat schedules didn’t suit him. I rented a single speed bicycle from the hotel for about two dollars and off we went!

We wanted to head to one particular place, but we missed the turn and decided to just continue straight on and see what adventures we’d find along the way. The first thing we found was a military band drill. The music wasn’t very good, but it was hilarious to watch them doing some sort of choreographed dancing with their huge instruments, in full uniform in 30-plus heat.

We continued cycling out of town farther and farther into the countryside and some time later, rounding a bend in the road, we came across a small shrine of some sort where a number of famous images have been recreated in miniature (they were still big, just not as big as the real things) on a big boulder.

It was a really nice location to relax for a few minutes. This is my cycling partner looking over farmers’ fields toward the Irrawaddy River:

After cycling 20km out of town on really, really poor roads (no problem for Chris on his mountain bike with gel seat and cycle shorts, but a big problem for me on my single-speed bike that was far too small for me and had a hard plastic seat), we stopped at a small shack for lunch. Having finished our noodles, we walked back to our bikes but some local villagers asked us in for tea so we had to oblige. It was really nice even though we couldn’t communicate much.

Chris joking around with the ladies, wearing a hat borrowed from one of them:

As we cycled back toward town, we came across a small lean-to with a couple of people sitting, selling bananas, so we stopped to chat in the shade and get some potassium. One of them actually spoke a manageable amount of English, which he learned from the US Rangers stationed in his village when he was 7 years old, after the Japanese had pulled out of Burma in WWII. It was great learning a bit about the local village history and finding out about his personal life and family.

I arrived back in Bhammo, fairly sunburnt, with a very sore butt, but happy that I had gone out on such a rewarding adventure.

The last photo from our day’s stay in Bhammo was taken from a small pedestrian bridge that allows people to pass over a swamp sitting in the centre of town. Houses are built backing onto the swamp, and you can see the lilypads and other swamp weeds growing below. The reason I took this photo, however, is to show the outhouse on the righthand side. Imagine trying to leap that gap from the house to the outhouse every time you need to relieve yourself! I wonder if the walkway from the house broke on its own or if someone was on it at the time!

A trip down the Irrawaddy River – Part 3 – Leaving Sinbo

When we woke up in our guesthouse in Sinbo, Kachin State, on February 16th it was frigid and foggy outside.

James, a Kiwi, did his best to see how long his morning cigarette ash could dangle while he kept smoking it:

These veggies were being chopped up for our breakfast:

After eating, we headed down to the riverbank to catch our boat to Bhammo. This boat was sitting with a new coat of paint:

A few boats waiting for their time to shove off and down the river:

As we were sitting in our small boat, waiting to leave, I couldn’t help but notice the message on the boat next to us:

Another thing I noticed on the boats was how they kept the turbines centred at the back – some had springs, but the tension on many was maintained with cheap bungy cords:

The trip down the river to Bhammo went fine. We got stuck on sandbars a number of times, so people had to get out and push, but we each arrived in one piece and settled down for a couple nights at a cheap hotel in Bhammo. The next day I went on an adventure with one of the Austrians…