…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay
Beep.Beep.Beep. Uuugghhhh. 4:00 AM. Time to get up and head over to the ferry for the eight-hour, could be seven-hour, but maybe ten-hour, boat ride to Bagan. We should be there by 2:00 PM. Get up, pack it up, head out the door by 4:30. Not that I’m not excited. I love boats, and I have wanted to go to Bagan for years. …it’s just early …with a bit to drink last night. OK, let’s go. Check out. No problem. The staff at the Myit Phyar Ayer Hotel even packed us a boxed breakfast – (not a bad place to stay at all, but after seeing that link I just posted, I had to laugh …maybe I’ll do a short review later). Awesome. Head out the door. Hey, look at that. The tuk-tuk driver we talked to yesterday is actually sitting there. Great. Hop in and head down to the docks.
Get to the docks …here we go, where’s the dock? There is no dock. But these are “The Docks”. That is correct sir, say the people. The docks with no dock. Aha, Myanmar, almost forgot. The “ticket shack” is jam-packed. A heaving mass of body parts flailing around and fighting for any inch of space that gets that body part a half-inch closer to the way too small window, or hole, in the side of the shack. Everyone fighting for tickets. Touché, we already have our tickets. Yes. The office we got them from said they were the actual tickets, and said we didn’t need anything else, but seeing the “fight to the hole” …I figured we “misunderstood”, but it seems we are the only people in the whole of Myanmar who don’t have to wait in “line” for our tickets. Sweet. Right down the gang-plank and onto the boat, after a few minor purchases of food and drink on the way. Almost the first ones here. Whoops, “not our boat”, says the guy with the big gun, it’s the boat that is docked to this boat that is docked to the gang-plank that leads down from the parking lot, right next to the shack/hole/ticket booth. No problem. Still one of the first to arrive. The on-board “restaurant”, ok, the on-board table with bench and small stove with river water pumped in, not “restaurant”, isn’t even open yet. …not even close. The waitress/busgirl/cashier still sleeping on her mat. We take our seats in the “tourist” section…
Note: we actually had to take the “slow boat” as we were told the “fast boat”, or tourist ferry, has actually ceased to run due to the lack of tourists. We were told this, and purchased tickets for the slow boat, two days before. …approximately one hour before we met a nice Swiss couple who told us they just purchased tickets for the “fast boat”. D*mn. Oh well, too late now and everyone else we talked too said the fast boat no longer ran …we’ll see. …end note. (The fast/slow/tourist/local ferry pictured below ↓ ).
A few minutes later, people start piling on, in, in-between, all-around, all through, and everywhere and anywhere there is an inch of space. Flashbacks to the “ticket shack-hole”. No worries. We have some room. Than, lo and behold, the Swiss couple who purchased tickets for the “fast boat” come trouncing on. Looks like there is a “fast boat”, it just happens to be on the same schedule and moving at the same speed at the same time on the same days as the “slow boat”. I have to smile at them as they give me a sly smile back. It’s all in fun. The boat is scheduled to leave at 6:00 AM. We pull out around 7:00 AM. Not too bad, I call this a win, remembering the ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa, which was supposed to pull out at 7:00 AM, …as we watched the sunset at 6:00 PM from the same exact spot. That’s another story though. As for this one, the typical old, third world type ferry, with plenty of patches, everything well-worn, and looking like it can turn over and sink at any second without an instant of warning. Good enough for me, if not a luxury liner, at least we have coffee. About an hour in you cruise through the hills of Sagaing. Through the outskirts of Mandalay, under modern bridges and power lines. The landscape becomes more and more rural, until, at about 9:00 AM, nothing but fields with the occasional stupa and shrine. It seems like the boat is getting more crowded at this point, with most of the tourists spreading out, stretching their legs, messin’ things up as tourists usually do. I may love boats, travel and ferries, but I hate being packed into a corner. A few more hours of cruising, or more like slowly floating against the water, and we should almost be there. Just watching the sights from the top of the boat, a dead rat floating by here, a bloated dog there. A fisherman here (yes, in a boat, still alive), a kid running on the shore and waving there. 9:05. Cha-ching. The Chinese man behind us calls out the time,”WA-CHA-MY-HA”, at the top of his lungs I may add, as he pulls a bottle of Johnny Walker Black out of his bag with a big smile. The Swiss couple makes it a check as they pull out a bottle of “Myanmar Rum”. Gulp. 9:05, I guess it’s late enough. At least I know how to say “drinkin’ time” in Chinese now. Check that off the bucket list. …as the local Burmese look at us with faces of wonderous “What the heck is going on, are these guys crazy?” kind of stares. A few sips by the older local gentlemen and women and everyone is family, as well as happy and smiling for some reason. PS: the picture to the left up above IS the waitress/cashier/busgirl …more on that later.
…to the first stop. The village of bananas. Yes, bananas, and I didn’t name it this until after the next few stops, but the reasoning behind the names I picked is because it seemed every village we stopped at had one, and only one, product to sell and trade. It was actually kind of cool. You could see the yellow from about a mile away. The village of watermelons (upcoming) …you could see the green and pink about a mile away, etc, etc. It seemed that the reason this wasn’t considered a “fast boat” was because, well, it was slow to put it mildly, but it also stopped at every village along the way. Every village. At each village, the local “product” would be loaded, off-loaded, traded, sold, bought, eaten and everything else you could do with that particular product. I gotta tell you, it worked. Why bother growing all kinds of different produce when you can just concentrate on one and then use it to trade for the rest. Yes, there are problems with the thinking, big problems, but if it works, it works very well, and it looked like it was working. Back to the bananas. First stop. The boat pulls up, a few feet from the actual shore, because there are no actual docks, and the river is too shallow to pull all the way in …and the gang-planks come out. Stick with me here folks, remember this is the land of docks without a dock. People on shore start running, people on the boat start heaving stuff over the side, everyone is in a panic. It gets real loud. People getting off, people getting on, hawkers up on the boat selling their wares, er, well, bananas. Whole bananas, fried bananas, bagged banana slices, banana sandwiches, banana balls, bananas on sticks, banana salad, banana pie, banana juice, banana chips, dried bananas, banana oil, banana paste – I think you get the idea. Kids running everywhere selling this stuff, weaving in and out of the crowd, in-between chairs, over railings, through legs, around backpacks, like a little munchkin banana army wielding an array of banana products. “You buy Banana!” “Cheap, Cheap”. Nothing but a few kyat will fend them away, you can’t hide, they’ll find you. You can’t climb, they’ll reach you. You can’t run, they’ll catch you (not that you could even move on the boat at this point). At one point I think I had one stuck to each leg, stabbin’ me with bananas in the shins, trying to trade for my camera, for my hat, for my flip-flops, one on my back, “I trade for you hair”. A few shakes of the legs, and I am free… I teach one to say “AArrrggghhhh”, another “Ahoy Matey”. A few I teach to say, when asked their names, to answer “Jack Sparrow”. A loud chorus of “JACK SPAWWO” goes roaring through the boat.
The waitress/busgirl/cashier is standing on a table at this point, actually I should say “the” table, long metal spoon in hand, seeming to rally her fellow munchkins, playing Queen of the Munchkin Banana Pirate Army as her troops create havic all-around. I want to give her my “I’m a Pirate in Real Life” t-shirt, but realize I left it at home… A few more long, loud, hectic, very amusing, minutes later, the horn blows, the gang-planks are pulled in, the munchkin banana pirate army exits the boat anyway they can, like a bunch of plundering munchkin banana pirates should, being done with their mission. Down the already moving gang-planks, over the side, through the rails, jumping off the bow, the stern, the roof, bananas scattering everywhere, kids screaming in happiness as they play Pirate’s of the Irrawaddy. Yelling back at the boat, arms, and bananas, waving in the air, the ferry passengers egging them on. I hear an “Aaarrghhh” in the distance, a few Jack Spawwo’s running around the shore, all the while thinking about the next ferry that stops by. The crowd on shore laughs, gathers their munchkin pirates, money, mini Jack Spawwos, and bananas up, and disperses till the next opportunity to attack comes (wish I was there for that). Everyone is in a happy mood again as the boat pulls away, without a tourist on the boat knowing what the heck just happened. Were we just attacked by munchkin banana pirates? How do they know who got on, who got off and who may be stuck on the boat from the village? Where did they put all those bananas? What if some are still on the roof and waiting to sneak attack? Why is this kid next to me still trying to get my empty bottles? Who owns this kid? Did you see any of the munchkin pirates swinging by a rope to get off? I think one is hiding in my backpack. Why is there a banana in my back pocket? Where is that Rum?
…and it doesn’t end here. This is just the beginning of the Ferry to Bagan. Stay tuned for more. It only gets better, or, well, worse, or both, or neither, depending on how you look at it. Next stop, the village of watermelons…
…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar IX – The Almost Perfect Storm