We had left the wild terrain of Chin behind us. We were in what felt like a new country, gold stupas, burgundy clothed monks and pagodas. Street food was back in big time, many tables and carts preparing simple food, noodles, deep fried chicken, sweet corn and offal.
We headed along a river with cultivated land on each side and banana plantations, passing through a small gorge, we hugged the river and gentle hills surrounded us. It was a green, vibrant and an ordered landscape.
We heard the news of the Coronavirus outbreak in China which was a blow to our plans with advice saying we shouldn’t travel to anywhere in China. After a rethink we decided to continue through Laos and Vietnam and see how far we can get, maybe Hanoi or Saigon.
We arrived at the Chindwin river where we were to take a boat downstream towards the mighty Irrawaddy. The sun rose, the river was misty, and with anticipation we waited for our craft. Eventually with a lot commotion the boat arrived and there were people everywhere. Passengers clambering on board, climbing through windows, traders selling food, and us wheeling our bike up the narrow gang plank to be lashed to the front of the wheelhouse with a lot of helpers.
The boat’s engine roared into action and we were off at quite some speed going with the river flow.
The river was broad with defined banks. Villages dotted the riverside. Gold stupas and temples often dominated the vista. Elegant narrow tiny boats pulled in fishing nets. Dainty, diminutive people wearing pointed hats stood on the fragile timber craft carrying out their work.
Larger boats with blackened timber planks carried large clay pots in split bamboo cages stacked high above the boat’s hull.
Rafts of bamboo supporting small houses with a couple of slender boats lashed along side drifted by. These are river gypsies we think. Pots and pans and all things that go with domestic life were on board along with fishing nets and traps. Long tail boats darted from village to village throwing up a plume of water some distance from their sterns.
Other massive bamboo rafts were floating down stream, literally transporting the cargo of bamboo, such a versatile material used from all kinds of construction, baskets, furniture, scaffolding and fencing.
Large robust steel barges towed by tugs, several at a time carried coal, and sand.
The river was shallow and sand banks were a menace the entire time. Two young lads with graduated bamboo poles checked the depth each side of the bow and called out the soundings to the helm, who was smoking his cheroot, and looking expressionless. His wife sat behind him in the wheelhouse looking rather sombre. They had already been traveling for a day and a night from Homalin further upstream.
The wheelhouse was right at the bow, our bike lashed to the front on the small foredeck. Very narrow side decks lead back past some small open sided cabins, which were more like shelves with about a metre of headroom. The central section of the hold had seats and behind this the large noisy diesel engine. Two green metal cases with doors and without roofs overhung the stern. They contained the loos that had a rather ingenious continual flushing mechanism that involved pumping river water through the squat loo creating a stream that ran back into the river.
Within site of our destination and after nine hours on board we had another encounter with a sand bank. The sounding sticks weren’t showing much water at all. The usual tactic of letting the long boat drift broadside to the river flow and let the current bounce us off didn’t work. We were stuck. Long blasts of power from the huge engine chucking up confused turbulence were tried, but we remained motionless. The grim sour faced captain’s wife sauntered along the narrow side decks and issued some instructions to some youths. Soon they were overboard and trying to heave the heavy craft off the shoal. Surprisingly with great effort they did it and we were free.
We followed the Chindwin river on quiet roads and tracks through a perfect rural scene of ox carts, villages with timber houses on stilts, conical hay stacks, people working the land that was the river flood plane and completely cultivated. Ancient temples and monasteries in various states of decay dotted the landscape. So many religious structures from a bygone time left to crumble, village life and farming going on around them, but not encroaching as if in respect to the spiritual structures.
The temperature had warmed considerably since leaving the mountains of Chin, and as we joined the Irrawaddy the land became stoney and parched as we entered what is known as the dry zone. The vegetation was thorny and coarse.
Fragrant Chinese tea was now everywhere. Any stop at a food place is always accompanied by lightly scented tea, free of charge and as much as you like. You don’t seem to need to buy anything, many just sit there on their phones and drink tea. We think it is probably part of the Buddhist thing like the big clay pots of water and cups that are left out by the roadside, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, just in case you are passing and are thirsty.
Stupas, temples and monasteries were in abundance. Gold and brightly painted. Vast elaborate structures using concrete to a creative dimensions, curly roofs, huge animals defining the entrance and of course the Buddhas in the different postures. These are newly constructed places, some still being built at presumably huge expense in a country where people seem to have very little.
We crossed the huge Irrawaddy river just after the pleasant market town of Pakokku, and followed the river banks through scrubby parched land towards Bagan.
Twelfth century brick monuments littered the countryside. Beautiful graceful structures, some vast and elaborate, others simpler and more diminutive. The hue and tincture of the ancient bricks define the temples shape against the slightly lighter ochre of the dusty soil set among thorny trees, made even softer and crimson at sunset. The relaxed setting of numerous ancient monuments in a disheveled peaceful wild landscape made it even more impressive. We cycled along little sandy tracks weaving our way past hundreds of age old temples and stupas.
The huge, elaborate temples were commissioned by important kings and the smaller ones by others, their size dependant on the persons wealth. Such a common thing we see on all our travels, the importance of money in ensuring your route to nirvana, heaven, or the next life. This opulence and lavishness still very much the case here today as it was back then. How can there be a need for so many religious structures, and many more are on the way too.
Bagan is stunning though, set on raised ground overlooking the Irrawaddy river. It has a truly auspicious feel to the place.
We continued our way among the ruins on rough sandy tracks, sometimes pushing our bike. Goats and cows were herded from one arid pasture to another by lone people wearing straw hats.
Gradually the old temples became fewer as we headed east. The parched thorney landscape rolled on across the dry zone of Burma. People called out Menglaba, (greetings) always with beaming smiles and waving. School children wearing green longyis , both girls and boys, pass by and shout out with broad friendly smiles. Rarely is there a view without a temple, this is the traditional Buddhist heartland. As we pass through towns tuneless music greets us and the shaking of silver patterned bowls indicate donations by passers by for the temple.
The houses in the dry zone are mainly two storey, sleeping and living areas up a staircase to one side that has a decorative cutaway apron. Downstairs is completely open sided and where cooking and washing goes on.
We enjoy our numerous food and drink stops at road side places. This is our world of the long days cycling. You notice a lot of stuff about villages, houses and customs from these places. It’s different here though as communication is so hard. There is so little English, but we are used to that and can normally find out so much despite the complexity of language. Here everyone is so kind, smiles and contentment all round, but you never get beneath the facade. We love to know about education, health, relationships, marriage, gender roles, and what the youth are up to. We have managed this with so little common language in other places, but here there is distance between us and them that is hard to break down. The only person who has spoken to us frankly was a Muslim lad just after we crossed into Burma from India. He was great, a betal nut dealer from Yangon whose ancestors were from Assam. He told us everything including how he moved betal nut through illicit border crossings in the forest when the Indians blocked the legal route to try and protect the betal nut price for Indian growers. Generally here though it seems that women do most of the work and mean count money and drink beer.
Road building crews are also another part of our cycling world and we find these people fascinating. Usually migrant workers from regions far away, it’s interesting to see what work they are doing, how mechanised it is or if it is totally by hand. Seeing how they live often in a harsh environment, and if they have there families with them living in makeshift tents and also the social atmosphere while they are working. Alot of the workers on the Indian Himalayan trip were a pretty sad bunch, really struggling and it was a sorry state. They enjoyed our encounters but then it was back to the grindstone. In Mizoram there was a lot of banter and laughter while the gangs were working. There were also a lot of machines helping too. In Chin they were more impoverished, but their children went to school and their tented accommodation seemed organised, probably supplied and had water and sanitation. In lowland Burma it was back to rather impoverished gangs looking rather sad.
We pushed on through central Burma stopping a night at Mount Popa, with its impressive temple built on a volcanic plug surrounded by luxuriant forest growing on the mountain sides, a sharp contrast to the surrounding landscape. Back in the arid land our bike rolled on towards the Shan Hills where we would climb out of lowland Burma, leaving the Irrawaddy, cross lake Inle, traverse the Shan mountains and eventually reach Laos and the mighty Mekong River.