We were leaving Bagan by river.
Lots of travelers do this, often by boarding one of the luxury boats sailing to Mandalay. But we were doing something very different. We had decided to charter a local motor boat, travel three hours upstream as far as Pakokku and then continue overland to Monywa, a city full of great sights.
We were at Bagan jetty after breakfast. The jetty is really a small village, with a few boats tied up at the water’s edge. The Irrawaddy (Ayeryawaddy these days) is huge, and we would be traveling on only a very small section of it. Our boat turned out to be small, with just enough seats for us, a roof to shade us, and place for our luggage, and behind us, in a separate enclosure was the longtail engine and the crew of 2. There was nothing to eat, drink, no restroom – but then it was only for three hours.
Heading out, we saw all the signs of river life – kids swimming, people washing their clothes, their hair, their kids, themselves. We passed some pagodas and very soon we were away from all signs of life…when ominously, the engine started coughing and then died. Luckily we hadn’t gone too far, and our crew somehow got us back to the jetty, by coaxing the engine, rowing, whatever. About 10 minutes later we were heading out on a replacement boat- but if the first one was lacking in luxuries, this one, hard to believe, had even less comforts.
The engine roared to life and we set off again. Roared is the operative word – it was brain splittingly, impossibly loud, and within twenty minutes we were almost deaf from the engine noise, which we could not escape. Worse, as the morning wore on, it became hotter and hotter.
Riverside life itself was fascinating to see – but the family had no interest – they were way too busy complaining. After three very long and deafening hours, we saw a huge bridge across the river, and the city of Pakokku came into view.
An example of how careful planning doesn’t always work out the way you expect.
Pakokku is a large town famous for its textiles, and as we docked we were set upon by about twenty ladies looking to sell us their wares. We were not really in the mood for shopping, but what they had to sell was so beautiful and cheap, that we could not refuses. Moving to the comfort of a local restaurant, it didn’t take long for us to become much more relaxed and happy.
We met our driver and left for Monywa. Monywa is famous for its many great Buddhist sites, and as we neared the city we couldn’t but notice a huge golden statue of Buddha on a hillside. This was Bodhi Tataung, a hill of amazing monuments. In addition to a gigantic standing Buddha, there is a huge reclining Buddha and thousands of smaller statues depicting Buddha’s disciples. In a country of so many ancient sites, these stand out for being new – in fact the interior of the standing Buddha is still unfinished – you can only climb up to the 57th floor! The lower floors of the standing Buddha are graphically painted in gaudy colors depicting the many tortures of Buddhist hell – a sight that the kids found wonderfully entertaining.
Our next stop was the spectacular Thanboddhay Pagoda. It was built in the 1930’s and served as a sanctuary for refugees during the second world war. Thanboddhay is famous for the number of its Buddha images – over 500,000 of them! Some are big, but the majority are tiny, some no bigger than your thumb, and niches for these little Buddhas stretch from floor to ceiling throughout the building. The kids especially enjoyed the turtles – an attraction at many temples in Myanmar and regarded as lucky.
Finally we made it to our hotel, the old Hotel Monywa. It was fine though basic – the city has a new tourist hotel which is clearly far more comfortable.
That night, we explored the night market. A common feature of many Myanmar towns – the markets are essentially places to grab a snack. We found a great ice cream stall, where we bought local ice cream as well as falooda, an Indian style drink complete with ice cream, jello, and various other stuff.
We ate dinner at a nearby Shan restaurant. Shan food consists of various stir fries and our kids loved it. Of course, we were the only foreigners in the restaurant, and as usual the focus of all attention.
(PS: I am now custom-designing trips to Myanmar. Click here for more details).