A Slow Boat through Myanmar

Asia, Cruise, Family & Kid Travel, Fitness & Workouts, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Myanmar, Planning — By on April 29, 2007 at 10:33 am


When we arrived at breakfast on the second day of our Myanmar river cruise, a member of the crew approached to inform Dad and Nadine that their luggage had finally arrived. It was not a moment too soon.

After that morning’s scheduled activity-a visit to one of Bagan’s food and crafts markets-our boat would be setting sail up the Ayeyarwady River and wouldn’t return for another six days. I could tell Nadine was relieved that she could wear her own wardrobe again and wouldn’t have to keep washing various clothing essentials each night in the sink! While Dad always had faith that the bags would arrive, he had the good manners not to throw in a well-warranted “I told you so.”

Opening her bag, Nadine dug around and tossed me and Holly the precious items we’d requested from home-some new clothes, a huge stack of glossy magazines (my crack!), a massive Ziploc filled to the bursting point with Splenda and two boxes of Fiber One cereal.

The two of us squealed like kids who’d just hit the Halloween jackpot and ran to our cabins to divvy up the loot. Sure, it probably seems a little strange that we got so excited over gossip magazines, fake sugar and high-fiber cereal but those are the things that we’ve come to miss!

Younger than most of the other cruise passengers (by about 30 years!), Holly and I didn’t exactly find “strolling through a village” and “shopping at a local market” to be the strenuous activity listed in the ship’s brochure. We wanted to stretch our legs, so instead of taking the tour bus into town, we opted instead to rent bikes and ride the six miles to the Bagan market.

The lady behind the activities desk had warned us that the bikes we’d be getting were pretty beat up, and she hadn’t overstated the situation at all.

Holly and I both stared for a moment at the dusty, rust riddled frames that clung to sad and deflated looking tires and didn’t know what to say. Luckily, I thought of something first.

“I’ll take the girl bike!” gesturing towards the shorter and more manageable of the two we’d been presented with. Thinking better of it, I generously offered to switch with her on the way back (which I never ended up doing!)

Together, we pushed off and realized almost immediately how difficult it was going to be to ride six miles in powder soft sand, especially on bikes that might have been older than we were. Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time to think about our burning muscles. A small group of kids, also on bikes, had formed in a pack around us and began firing off questions in near perfect English.

Holly and I knew they’d probably want to be tipped just for hanging out with us, but it was actually nice to have the company as we peddled along.

Nearly 45 minutes later-far longer than we’d anticipated-we arrived at the Bagan market and realized that we only had about 15 minutes to look around before we’d have to get back on our bikes again. Poor planning, but at least Holly and I got that “vigorous activity” we’d been hoping for!

Here are a few photos from our market mini-tour…

Returning to the boat just in the nick of time, we tipped our little biker buddies a few coins and ran across the gangway. Ten minutes later, our ship had sailed.

Over the course of the next two days, we traveled a lazy, meandering path up the river, catching glimpses of life along the sandy banks. Some of the settlements seemed almost other-worldly, as if the locals were trying to colonize the moon.

On the flat, treeless banks, families had erected tiny shelters made of sticks, plastic tarpaulins and corrugated tin. Women had smeared their faces with a chalky yellow cream and coated their babies in the same paste-made by grinding the bark of a thanakha tree against a stone and adding a splash of water.

Spreading the salve not only helps cool the skin and prevent it from burning, but it makes the skin appear paler, a quality valued by women in Myanmar-and indeed throughout Southeast Asia (visit any drugstore in Thailand or Vietnam and you’ll find shelves stuffed with cosmetics and soaps that contain “whitening” agents).

Already Holly and I had been approached by Burmese women who’d gestured to our faces and our pale skin and simply said, “Beautiful…beautiful.” At first, I was flattered by the compliment, but then grew a little sad that these naturally gorgeous women seemed to be most impressed by a Western standard of beauty.

I was also surprised to learn that while we were technically on a “cruise,” our destination-Mandalay-was only about 100 miles or so upriver from Bagan! Because the river bottom has become so shallow in places, it’s necessary for big boats like ours to take their time. Certainly, no one could accuse our captain of rushing.

Dad, Nadine, Holly and I enjoyed our third day “at sea” by topping it off with yet another sumptuous dinner prepared by two gorgeous French chefs (in retrospect, the fact that they were the only unattached men under 60 on the entire boat probably made them seem more attractive than they really were).

As usual, Hol and I tested the patience of our nightly waiter by ordering dishes of our own design (“can I have a mixed green salad with goat cheese and a balsamic dressing on the side?”) and completely ignoring the concept of a prix-fix menu (“is it possible to order two appetizers and skip the entrée?). Trying to ignore my inner glutton for once, I decided against the white-chocolate bon-bon dessert and bugged our waiter for a fruit plate instead. The rest of our table decided to indulge their sweet teeth, a move which they couldn’t have known would severely alter the next week of their lives.

Late that night, my Dad and Nadine became violently ill with food poisoning, as did Holly the next morning after she joined me for an omelet at breakfast. It quickly became clear when 80 percent of the passengers on our boat had holed up in their cabins to evacuate their food from both ends that something was desperately wrong.

For some reason, I managed to escape the agony of puking in a bathroom the size of a hatbox (and further, sharing that bathroom with a romantic partner who needs it for other medical reasons) so I did my best to attend to my family and fellow Lost Girl.

After the ship’s doctor-who was literally sweating from running between every cabin on the ship-visited my poor traveling companions, he told me that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the illness that nearly everyone had. It could have been anything from food poisoning to an airborne virus, but the only cure was to drink lots of fluids and stay in bed. Duh.

Dad and Nadine, ashen and looking very unhappy beneath their damp sheets, insisted that I go on that day’s tour because “at least one of us should be enjoying ourselves.”

I decided to take their advice and joined the five other passengers who’d managed to escape the illness for a bus tour to the Son U Pon Nya Sin Pagoda, a religious complex that offered one of the most spectacular views in all of Mandalay.

After taking off our shoes (an essential thing to do when entering a Buddhist temple or holy site), our group strolled through the entry massive doors started exploring. Almost immediately, I decided that I loved the place: it was decorated in a profusion of crazy Crayola colors, frosted floor to ceiling in shimmering disco ball tiles and over-the-top in a way only Baz Lurman fans can truly appreciate.

It’s probably sacrilegious to write, but even the Buddha statutes seemed cooler and funkier than the ones I’d seen in Bagan. Check this guy out…is the big guy wearing fire-engine red lipstick, or what?!

Trying get into a more religious and respectful state of mind, I bought a strand of prayer beads from a monk-and subsequently learned the he wasn’t a monk at all, but a dude dressed up like one to make some cash.

“Very naughty of him,” said my guide, who seemed to find the situation more humorous than troublesome. As I’d only spent a dollar on my new wooden bracelet, I decided against chasing the faux holy man down the hill and instead, strolled to the edge to take in the view—a spiritual sight, indeed.

Over the next couple of days, the ship collectively started to heal and Dad, Nadine and Holly felt well enough to participate in a few group activities. Here’s just a few of the highlights:

1. Getting (thee) to a Nunnery: Holly and I loved visiting with these little girls, who were all studying to become Buddhist nuns. At first, they were incredibly shy but grew bold enough to practice their chanting in front of us. Like all little ladies, they loved getting their photo taken and giggled when we showed them the result on our camera’s playback screen. Holly and I then visited another nunnery, where we learned that women cannot earn the title of monk. While some experts claim that this is because the original bloodline from Buddha has been broken, many locals believe it’s because women aren’t strong enough to follow all 227 rules required of an ordained monk. The greatest responsibility and position a nun can reach is a “keeper of morality.” And you thought your job was hard.

2. Popa Taung Kalat: In order to reach the summit of this extinct volcano and the monastery at its peak, we had to remove our shoes and climb 777 stairs. That’s right….about nearly 80 flights of vertical fun! Adding to the drama and excitement of the ordeal, er, adventure was the fact that the entire stairwell was overrun with shrieking monkeys desperate to defend their babies against the dogs who were also running around. I’m less than enthused to report that we actually had to step over animal poo and questionable fluids in order to reach the top, but we made it. The four of us took turned ringing the enormous bell (for good luck!) and posing against a truly stunning backdrop.

3. Offering of Alms to the Monks: Holy s%$#@! You might have gathered from earlier entries on this blog that The Lost Girls are not morning people, but Hol and I joined Dad and Nadine for this 6:00am activity. Getting four hours less sleep than normal turned out to be totally worth it…watching little boys lining up to get their daily ration of food from generous townspeople helped me to grasp the meaning of true dedication.

4. Taking a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Maymyo: Back in New York, I was opposed to horse drawn transportation on the grounds that it’s a little cheesy, but here in Myanmar, you realize that it a perfectly valid (and rather cool) way to get around. After talking Holly out of buying some “precious gems” from a hoodwinker at the local market, we jumped into the carriage and took of for a tour of the local botanical garden.

5. Cocktails on the Top Deck: Okay, so it’s not exactly a “local” experience, but we were all so relieved that Dad, Nadine and Holly felt better that we figured some serious champagne was in order. Fortunately, the staff of the ship kept the bubbly flowing and we used our cocktail hour to make friends with the new passengers who’d boarded the ship at Mandalay. Maybe it was the hooch or maybe we were just in great spirits, but all four of us tried on the Longyi skirt worn traditionally by men in Myanmar. Now we’ll never know who wears the pants in the family!

As if you haven’t had enough, here are a few more pix from our trip!

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  • JayCa says:

    This is the first blog of the Lost Girls I have read. I found out about you through Budget Travel. What a joy to read! It makes me sad that I am right now stuck in one place.
    Travel on my friend!
    I am happy to offer tips for Sydney & all Australia, I lived there for 6 months in 2003.

  • Taylor A says:

    I cannot begin to tell you how jealous I am of your travels, as I sit here at a cubicle. Your trip sounds amazing and I hope to soon do something similar. I’ve been to Africa, Europe, N+S America and the Middle East but never Asia, so thats next on my list.

    I don’t know if you know about the Blogger’s Choice Awards but they have a “Best Travel Blog” category that you should check out. You are welcome to nominate yourself (you are DEFINITELY worthy). If you’re already nominated, you can grab some embed code that puts a “vote for me” button up on your site so that your readers can make sure you win and get sent to the awards ceremony in November.

    Worth a shot to get something back. Anyway, best of luck, and keep on blogging.

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