Thursday, 30 January 2014

Myanmar Map

The map below shows are travels over the past two weeks in northern Myanmar and the modes of transport used. The government still prohibits foreigner travel further north than Mytikyina without permits and a guide and the Chin state to the north west still has highly restricted access, therefore we've been as far north as we can go. Tomorrow we head to Yangon to explore the south of this amazing country.

At the bottom of each post there should now be a link to our current location on google maps - check it out.

Ayeryarwady River Day 2

As the bed at Sinbo was just a rafia mat on a board we were smug that we'd brought our own sleeping bags and a bedding rafia mat each as, at least mentally, we were more comfortable. Although the cockerel crowing competition started at five, and the pigeon race on our tin roof was hotly contested, we arose well rested.

We watched the ladies preparing lunch as we ate our breakfast of bananas and green tea, seated next to a giant poster of Avril Lavinge. Small cauldrons of chicken pieces in a red sauce, stir fried broccoli, slightly mashed chick peas, boiled eggs in sauce and steamed rice were set out. The round stacked tiffin boxes then appeared, soup went in the first layer, then each compartment was filled in turn. Some portions had chillies added, others got no meat - depending on the diners preference. Once stacked the tin layers where secured and the tiered lunch box was ready to go. Beats a pre-packed sandwich any day!

On Friday 24th we caught a small ferry boat out of Sinbo at 10.30am. It carried an average of 10 people and left promptly. The monk had the best (largest) seat. The encircling terrain became hilly. The river was cutting down and we passed through rocky outcrops and pebbly shores. The flowing water was a constant murky brown and did not entice us to have a dip. The combination of the natural resources surrounding the river and the relatively cheap transportation means provided by the downstream flow has lead to many small communities eking out a living from the land.

We could see paths leading up from the bank into the woods. A large amount of bamboo had been cut from the forest. It was bundled up into stacks like hay, then these were lashed together to make very large rafts. Little hamlets of the grass cutters families lived on these rafts. When enough bamboo had been harvested the whole raft was floated downstream with houses, mothers and children on board. Bamboo is widely used to form the girders and walls for  buildings such as houses and schools. Alongside the river we saw many basic bamboo houses and shelters. It's also used to make all types of furniture, scaffolding, cooking utensils - it's a pretty versatile raw material.

Dark wood chips on the shores were signs of teak felling. Removed from the forest in the dry season these giants were cut into planks or posts and floated down river. I read that Myanmar 'holds 75% of the worlds teak reserves'. Maybe this is a relative claim as I'm not sure there are many of these highly prized hardwood left in the hills.

The gold mining camps were prolific and vast sways of riverbank had been blasted away by jet washing. Every few hundred metres a small group of tents worked their claim, families or small gangs, washing, sluicing, panning and living. There were boats working in groups in search of these deposits, washing the sediment down afro-turf sluices. Ladies panned the sparkly dirt collected in the afro-turf seeking the precious flecks.

We had numerous stops at gold camps or nameless sand banks to collect or drop off passengers or cargo (often diesel, once a motorbike).

Once through the hills the Ayeryarwady River stretched wider and occasional coconut trees appeared on the shores. More settlements dotted the banks, some well established with stupas. Pigs, buffalo and chickens wandered about. The land flattened out and crops of maize became more frequent.

Passing young men washing in the harbour channel next to piles of plastic rubbish we made Bhamo about 4pm. Hotel choice was limited because, as foreigners, we are restricted where we may stay. We'd booked ahead at the 'Friendship hotel' and enjoyed a hot shower. The hotel provided a good range of complementary room toiletry goodies; the most unusual was the tea-flavoured toothpaste.

We chose a nearby restaurant for dinner and were pleasantly surprised at how good the food tasted. Chris went for fried chicken and Thai fried chicken rice, I had garlic pork ribs and a spinach dish. When the bill arrived it was much more than expected and so Chris raised the matter. Mysteriously the bill was soon reduced, albeit with profuse apologies from the owner.

Lunch being transferred into a lunchbox tier at Sinbo, you can see the stacked tin lunch boxes on the shelf behind

Down the river with our fellow passengers on a much smaller boat

Motorbikes at the front and monks in the middle, everyone else fills in the gaps

The larger more established mining camps have shops, the women wash the clothes whilst the men rest in the shade

These bamboo rafts can hold a number of families or work gangs, sheltering under makeshift tarp tents

The camps are seasonal as the water level is to high in the wet season, hoses wash the silt from the bank through sluice traps

Some sluice designs have matting at the bottom (like astro-turf) to catch the heavier minerals

Some stretches where deposits are greater have small camps every few hundred metres

Some more established camps can be worked nearly all year round on the upper slopes

Gasoline is a common cargo for generators and water pumps

A boat is an essential commodity here, few roads or tracks reach the river at these upper reaches

Bamboo harvested from the forest to be exported downstream

Fellow passengers hailing a ride

Women panning the residues from the traps to reclaim their precious flecks


Some bigger operations using boats sluice at one end and live at the other

Our fellow passenger the monk disembarked

The two essential modes of transport for this region, the boat and the ox

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Ayeryarwady (Irrawaddy) River - Day 1

The Mytikyina hotel receptionist had told us the boat left at 7am, so to be sure of getting a ticket at 6.30am we were advised to leave the hotel at 6am and we made arrangements with her to book a taxi. Time management was not her strong suit, as when we came down to the desk the bill was not prepared nor a taxi booked. Eventually we caught a tuk tuk, it was before dawn, cold and he went incredibly slowly, in fact we were overtaken by a bicycle! Arriving a few minutes before seven we were dropped off on the road and found our way down to the harbour where a handful of boats congregated on the riverbank. “The boat doesn't leave till 9am” we were told (well, actually it finally left at 9:45am). Shivering, despite 4 layers, a nice Nepali man felt sorry for us and helped us find some noodle soup and we supped green tea till our departure.

It was tricky to navigate the upper Irrawaddy as the water was low; it is half way through the dry season and the wet season starts in June. We cruised criss-crossing the broad shallow river and scuttling around lurking dangers. The ferry was used by locals, approximately 80 passengers on board and the only other foreigners were two French guys in their early twenties.

We past flat and pebble crested sandbanks mixed with fine sand terraces showing dune bedding formations. Wild geese, cormorants and ducks dabbled at the waters edge. Often a tree branch marooned in the middle of the river reminded us just how shallow it was. The ferry captain said it was only two foot deep in places, so the hull must have hardly had a draught. In the hazy distance we could just distinguish sharp pointed hills.

Hawkers selling quail eggs, beans (prepared in ten different ways), apples, steamed buns, sweet buns, samosas, fried chicken, chickpea cakes, small potatoes in a sauce, cigarettes, cheroot, betel nuts, sponge cake and indigestion remedies peddled their wares. The gentle chug of the engine competed with the passengers eating constantly, like crunching termites. Sunflower seeds where the most popular choice, with the husks being spat onto the floor. Within an hour we thought we were in a parrots cage!

We often stopped to meet someone on the bank who had cargo that needed transporting. Mooring up to a sandy shelf at an isolated village we realised how much of a life line the ferry was to so many. We also passed gold panning camps with men and woman washing away the banks in hope of a tiny fleck.

A young boy of four took a shining to Chris. Using the limited phrases proffered in our pirated Lonely Planet guide book and a degree of imagination we established some level of communication. The boy tried to help things along by spelling things out and was perplexed why Chris didn't know the most basic Burmese. The first hour was enjoyable as he was a cute little chap, even trying to read our palms, and removing a grey hair from Chris's head much to the rapturous laughter of the whole boat. The second hour Chris entertained him with the iPad, the third hour Chris pretended to be asleep to get rid of him, the fourth hour we hid on the roof of the boat.

Late in the afternoon we arrived at Sinbo, a large village with no road connection. Everything came and went by river, including us. We were shown with the French to the only guesthouse, a friendly basic affair with about 5 rooms thinly partitioned under a tin roof. The bed was a large double, the mattress a raffia mat! We ate wonderful rice, vegetables and fried river fish with mega hot tobasco style sauce. The French joined us for a beer. A local gent at the table next to us introduced himself and told us about the village and the area. Apparently the majority of people in the valleys are Shan, they've migrated north upstream from Shan province, whereas the Katchin tend to be up in the hills living in the jungle.

The sky was very clear and later in the evening we admired the bright stars. It was like someone had gone crazy with a needle to pierce holes everywhere into the heavens. There seemed to be more stars than sky.

An early, chilly start onboard

Where the river is too narrow for the boat to reach the bank the locals appear in force to ferry passengers and cargo to shore, some selling their wares as they go

Often to as the Brown Python snaking its way south across the flat plains of central Myanmar

Plenty of room on top for luggage, cargo and travellers. People use the outer ledge to walk to the toilets at the back of the boat, consisting of a hole in the deck and some plywood to spare ones blushes!

Sarah enjoying her day out on the river

Locals disembark at their village stop

Our trusty lady in white moored up for the evening at Sinbo

Everything is transported by river here