A cruise along the Chindwin River reveals Myanmar’s troubled history and fascinating rural life, says Sara Macefield
As I gazed across a lush landscape of paddy fields dotted with Buddhist temples to the mountains beyond, I couldn’t help wondering how long it would take to reach India.
After all, it was just 20 miles over the mountains, and had proved to be the ultimate safe haven for British soldiers during the Second World War when they fled from this isolated part of northern Burma as Japanese troops poured in to take control.
I was reminded of this chapter in the country’s history on a voyage up the Chindwin River, as our group encountered sprightly octogenarians living along the riverbanks who vividly recalled those dark days of the conflict.
One woman spoke of seeing troops sweep through her riverside village, while another described how British soldiers took her and other villagers with them as they retreated across the mountains to India. She stayed there for two years, returning to find her family home flattened along with the rest of the devastated village.
Such reminiscences stuck in my mind as we sailed peacefully through this remote Burmese hinterland from the town of Monywa, which is a three-hour drive north of Mandalay, northwards to Homalin, near the Indian border.
But the tranquillity of this particular afternoon’s cruising was interrupted by a harsh strident clank, which abruptly pierced the bubble of my peaceful reverie.
Had we hit a sandbank? The Chindwin River is famous for its shallow waters, which are just a few feet deep in places, and running aground is a real possibility.
Thankfully, we hadn’t, but the propeller shaft of our boat, Zawgyi Pandaw, had instead taken a pounding from a mystery object and required some urgent patching-up.
We were still able to limp to the town of Kalewa, where we moored overnight, but ongoing repairs by the crew meant we couldn’t set sail until the following morning.
That was a definite bonus though, as it meant we were free to explore this bustling hub, never normally visited by tourists – not that there are many on the Chindwin anyway.
Unlike the Irrawaddy, which is becoming increasingly busy, this northern tributary remains off the beaten track as just a handful of vessels can navigate the Chindwin, with only three companies operating cruises here.
I was sailing with Pandaw, the only cruise line to offer departures eight months of the year, and during our week-long sailing experience we never saw any other tourist boats or tourists for that matter.
One elderly lady trotted up to me in Kalewa and started stroking my arm, babbling away in Burmese and clearly fascinated by my light skin, while others would gaze at us curiously, smiling shyly when we called out the Burmese greeting “mingalaba” and replying in kind.
As there were so few of us – just 11 Americans and me – it was easy to wander on shore where there was a blissful feeling of being truly away from it all, reflected by the genuine friendliness of the people.
With muddy tracks lined by wooden stilted houses, and the modern curse of discarded plastic bottles and packaging, the villages all looked the same. What made them stand out was the local life carrying on all around us: farmers driving oxen carts laden with crops; women balancing impossibly large wooden caskets on their heads; and children careering along on battered old bikes.
Chickens strutted through the grass followed by lines of cheeping chicks, tethered pigs amiably snorted and snuffled in the mud while, more worryingly, huge poisonous spiders sat threateningly in giant webs strung across pathways over our heads. Sometimes it was better simply not to look up.
In the towns, we made a beeline for the markets, their narrow passageways snaking past stalls selling household items, unrecognisable fruits like white plums (they look like gooseberries), unfamiliar dried spices and salted fish.
Everywhere we turned, there was a photo opportunity. From groups of women, their faces painted with thanaka paste, made from tree bark and used widely as a natural sunscreen, to people smoking large cheroots or chewing on betel nuts, a stimulant that stains their teeth red.
The town of Mawlaik is as a former colonial centre under British rule before independence in 1948. Traces of this period still remain, with its distinctive clock tower and century-old administrative HQ where up to 3,000 expat Britons were apparently based.
One of the more quaint reminders was the nine-hole Mawlaik Golf Course, where we practised our putting skills on one of the immaculate greens. Dating from 1916, it is reputedly linked to St Andrews in Scotland, with members apparently able to play at both.
But the most heartwarming highlights were at the local schools where we gave out pens, notepads and sweets to lines of youngsters with shy expectant expressions and dark eyes full of curiosity.
In halting English, they would tell us their names and belt out songs for these visiting Westerners, while we would respond in kind, teaching them the Hokey Cokey.
As we sailed further northwards, so the terrain changed, becoming more rugged and beautiful, while the river became more congested as there are no roads this far north.
Cargo boats piled high with giant oil drums and noisy, packed passenger boats chugged past us, and I couldn’t help but feel relieved at the calm, peaceful surroundings of our own floating haven, whose wooden surroundings combined the best of natural rusticity with modern comforts.
Mealtimes were social affairs, served on the spacious top deck, with its dining area and cosy lounging space. The cuisine was a highlight with bread freshly baked on board and four-course feasts at lunch and dinner, where we dined on delicious fresh fish, stir fries, creamy soups and curries. Our admiration for the Burmese crew grew even more when we realised the galley was the size of a shoebox.
All the staff were endearingly helpful, proffering cold flannels as we returned from muddy villages, and they mixed pre-dinner cocktails with gentle Burmese smiles.
Such calm demeanours reflected the strength of the Buddhist culture that dominates this country and is personified by the golden temples and thousands of Buddha statues scattered across the tropical landscape.
The revered Buddhist cave complex of Phowintaung was like something out of Indiana Jones with its limestone niches and tumbling foliage, and was the first of many temple sites we visited during the cruise.
A week later, as I travelled through the former capital Yangon on my journey home, I watched the sunset at the magnificent Jade Buddha Temple complex, and silently prayed that nothing would ever spoil the spirit of this unique country and its enchanting people.
GETTING THERE: Audley Travel offers a 13-night package that includes a seven-night Pandaw sailing from Monywa to Homalin, two nights in Mandalay pre-cruise and two nights in Yangon post-cruise, flying with Thai Airways via Bangkok, from £4,250pp, based on various departures in 2017. This is calculated on two people sharing a stateroom and includes all flights and transfers. Visit audleytravel.com or call 01993 838000.
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