Today was the first day of my exciting trip up the Irrawaddy River in Burma – or more accurately the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar (pronounced Mee-an-mar, and not My-an-mar as I had always assumed).
We had spent the night of our arrival at a Sheraton hotel in Yangon – the largest city in Myanmar and previous known as Rangoon. I also believed it to be the capital, but that was wrong too! It used to be, until the military government officially relocated the capital to Naypjidaw in 2006, much of the city being built from scratch and at considerable expense. This appeared to be a bone of contention with our guide, understandably considering the way in which most of the people of the country appear to live.
What we hadn’t been warned about was that the trip from Yangon to Prome, where we were to board our ship, was a six hour journey, and our bags had to be outside the bedroom door for 6 am! We left at 7, and had a couple of stops along the way, arriving at the ship/boat (not sure what I’d call it really) at about 1.30 pm. It was our first experience with Burmese toilets! These were classed as some of the best, and chosen for that reason. Beware. If ever you go to this wonderful country, take tissues (there is no toilet paper) and take antiseptic wipes, because you’ll need them. Nearly every loo we visited was a stand up job with two lumps of concrete for your feet and a hole in the floor. I didn’t bother taking a photograph!
It was a long journey, but an interesting one because we were driving through the countryside of Burma and we could see people going about their daily lives. I loved the fact that people still carry things on their heads (incredibly sensible, but a good sense of balance required) and everybody, men included, wear the national dress of a sort of skirt, called a longyi. It’s essentially a piece of fabric about two metres long, which is joined to make a large tube. The men and women tie it differently – but it’s incredibly practical. I ended up with a few of these, with no idea what I’m going to do with them. But when you go to a market and people are pressing you to buy – what can you say?
We arrived at the boat in time for lunch, and we got our first taste of how brilliant the hosts were. The whole crew was out to greet us, and help us onto the boat with a smile for everybody. The food was good – lots of choice between Burmese and European (I chose Burmese for EVERYTHING) and after lunch we set off for a very brief sightseeing trip.
Apart from a visit to a museum, which proved to everybody that the Burmese had been a very cultured race with some incredible jewellery and coins from the 4th century, we visited our first stupa (but far from our last).
Essentially the Burmese people call them all pagodas – some are stupas, and some are temples. A stupa is a solid mound, often built of brick all the way through (and some of them are huge) and they also often contain relics of Buddha (not sure whether to believe that!), and his disciples, or are built to commemorate an event. You can’t go inside – they are absolutely solid.
The pagodas that are classed as temples are buildings that you can usually go inside, and they often have absolutely HUGE Buddhas inside. It was a strange thing, but although during the stay we visited many pagodas, I never once got any sense of the place being holy. I’m not madly religious, but I have been in so many churches and cathedrals around Europe – in particular in Italy – and there is a real sense that each of them is a place of worship. I didn’t really get this at all, although I do think the Buddhist beliefs are very interesting.
Everybody was pretty exhausted from the morning’s journey, so we were back in a couple of hours in time to unpack and prepare for the cocktail hour. We set sail up the river, but you can’t actually tell that the boat is moving – it’s so incredibly smooth.
The room is lovely – lots of space, everything you could possibly need, and a brilliant balcony so that I can sit outside and watch the Burmese world go by (but not at night, because I might get eaten to death). NOTE: I wrote this on the first night, and I’m editing it now that I’m back. In the whole two weeks, I didn’t get one single bite. I’ve been bitten more in Alderney than I was in Burma – so that’s a surprise.
Great first day, but now I’m shattered (from sitting on a bus???) – so going to get my Kindle out and do some serious reading. Something light and fluffy, I think!!