The next stage of our river trip was from Bhamo in the Katchin State to Katha in Sagaing Division. Saturday’s departure at 9am from Bhamo was not a smooth one. On leaving the harbour we hit a substantial submerged sandbank and floundered for ten minutes, until the repeated thrusts of the engines pushed us through using brute force. Next we hit the bank, the crew shouted and the engine cut. We thought that the propeller might be damaged due to over-revving whilst beached. Two hours after setting sail we were still marooned and within a short swim of Bhamo. We were right, the effort to force the boat through the sandbank first bent and then sheared the prop shaft leaving it and the propeller somewhere in the silty river! Whilst 3 boys were sent wading through the shallow waters to try to find and retrieve it, a spare one was prepared and fitted in the shallows near the riverbank!
We decided that the person at the wheel must have been a novice, or very unlucky, as we got wedged a couple more times on sandbanks. Finally the channel deepened and we started moving more smoothly. Apparently the hills along this stretch were places of Buddha’s Youth Era. The river narrowed through a rock-lined cut for seven miles. We saw the famous Parrots Beak, a rock duly painted to look like a parrot. The local boatmen use this as a water level marker. When the water level reaches to the parrot’s beak (like the parrot is drinking the water) it is usually impossible for the boats to go upriver because of the very strong current.
The river then opened out to a very wide, flat vista. The river became so wide it was hard to see what we were passing on the distant banks. The no frills public boat was running 2-3 hours late but this seemed normal to the locals we were bumping elbows with. The hawkers were more abundant on this stretch and for lunch we brought some vegetables, boiled rice and a fish skewered and barbequed on a stick.
The charge for passage to Katha was 12,000 khat, which equated to about $12, the locals paid 5,000 khat. This system of a greater foreigner fee applied on each river trip we took and trains and buses. The ferry accommodated about 80 passengers. I use the word accommodate loosely as the seats were arranged so close together we couldn't actually sit properly in them, furthermore under each seat was stored large bags of cargo, so we perched in our seats for the 8 hours.
Reaching sleepy riverside Katha we eventually found a very basic cell-like room in a guesthouse on the riverfront. In 1926/7 Katha was briefly home to British colonial police officer Eric Blair, better know by his pen name of George Orwell. He apparently used this outpost as the setting for his novel 'Burmese Days'. Strolling around town a few older teak buildings were visible, but this literary link had obviously been missed by their tourist information office (if they had one). There was no indication of which buildings held any historical or literal significance so we just wandered around and soaked up the atmosphere of the bustling little town.
Hawkers selling breakfast and lunch
Emergency repairs on the riverbank
People eking out a living on the sandbanks during the dry season
The 9:45 monk express to Bhamo
The chap at the front of the boat has a bamboo depth gauge, this crew definitely needed to use it more often
Not THE Golden Rock but a very good copy
The Ox is essential in this isolated but fertile land