MYANMAR – Slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan

Whatever floats your boat…

(Written by Steph)

The slow boat left Mandalay at 4am, and figuring that this would be the way to be with the real people of Myanmar, we opted for this in place of the cleaner, shinier, and more expensive speedboats on offer. And we were sort of right. The local people did travel on the boat, but they were all gathered at one end, the other lined with plastic chairs and reserved for tourists. It wasn’t the integration we had planned, but it was still the middle of the night by our standards, and we were hankering after a bit more sleep in any case. We found ourselves a nice corner and laid down our tent ground sheet – it was about time we used the blasted thing anyway.

Having a Lapaieh (cuppa) onboard

A couple of hours later, we left our ground sheet to head for the boat cafe on the locals’ side. This consisted of a plank of wood to sit on and water pumped up from the river to be used for cooking. We didn’t mind a bit…although we quietly hoped that different water was being used to make our hot drinks – we had seen the state of that river up close. Rubbish disposable was not a big thing here.

“Lap-ai-eh,” I attempted.

“Lap-ai-EEEH,” the woman repeated back to me, chuckling to herself, perhaps at the fact that I knew the word, perhaps at my terrible pronunciation of it. We had met a French girl at the monastery in Hpa-an and she had taught us some useful phrases. “Tea” was the first word I had learnt, after “hello” and “thank you,” and I rated this as being of high importance. But now I was to crack out the sentence that was guaranteed to win friends…if I could get it right…

“Myanmar nangago cheeteh.”

She paused for a second before shreiking and clapping her hands together.

“Myanmar neingago cheeteh! Myanmar neingago cheeteh!”

She repeated the phrase to her family, waving her hand wildly in my direction and bursting into cackles of laughter. It was obviously close enough, and telling them I loved their country seemed to do the trick.

We were having so much fun with them, that even when the boat made another stop, we didn’t go back to make sure our spot was secure. I mean, our stuff was laid out on the groundsheet. Plus, there was oodles of room on the boat…

Picking up more passengers
Old-School farming methods

What we hadn’t bargained for were Italians. Big organised tour groups of Italians. They made themselves noticed immediately, cameras unabashedly shoved in faces of the locals for minutes at a time. It was so grotesque it actually caused Nick to keep his camera tucked away, not wanting to add to the obvious discomfort of the subjects.

We returned to our spot to find a human assault course of different Italians blocking the entire width of the boat. Not only do they not like queues, apparently they don’t go for rows either. Forced to clamber over them (moving their chairs slightly to make a path through seemed an alien concept to them) we made it back to what had been a nice, quiet comfortable corner, and what was now a caged-in racket. As individuals, I am fond of a number of Italians, but put ’em together and what have you got? Not bippedy boppedy boo, that’s for sure.

Another stop along the way. This one had no jetty, just a steep, muddy bank.

After an hour or two of climbing back and forth, they must’ve cottoned on to the fact that I was none too impressed by their lack of courtesey, and they actually started slightly moving the chair as I tried to get past, no doubt fearing I might just trample on them if not. However, two of them seemed unable to conduct a conversation at what a normal person might consider to be a reasonable decibel level, each doing their very best to be the funniest and most dramatic and gesticulate with the most fervour. These were Italian personalities that I recognised from my past, where I was happy for them to remain. After having a very nice conversation with one of the Italian girls there, obviously slightly embarrassed by her tour group company, I ran out of reasons to stick it out in the corner. Remembering that I had seen a Burmese lady giving massages earlier in the journey, I went to find a bit of restbite.


Well, it wasn’t as cheap as the Thai massage I had had in Bangkok, but it was certainly charming. I’ve no doubt in my mind that this lady didn’t have a single clue how to give massages, and I began to think maybe I should have just roped Nick in as I usually do. I’d trained the boy up pretty well, and he was quite accomplished in massaging my back now. Then I remembered the Italians. Oh yes, this was about a bit of escape.

So, there I sat, enjoying the peace as she silently squeezed my arms, wistfully staring into the distance. But at some point she clocked the NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party) stickers on my T-shirt. As was the reaction of many people we had met in Yangon, Hpa-an, and to a lesser extent, Hsipaw, she smiled widely at the recognition that we shared something in common, eyes full of surprise. Ok, so it was pretty superficial on my part. I only knew the basics about Aung San Suu Kyi, but I knew her party stood for democracy and I knew that she had spent a many great years of her life under house arrest, because she refused to give in to the people that wanted otherwise. For me, wearing the NLD merchandise was a small show of solidarity with the people here, so long oppressed. And they were so appreciative of this – to know that people outside their country actually cared about their future. My sweet masseuse came to life at this point, further animated by the other few Burmese words we had learnt that now came into play.

“Jai de Aung San Suu Kyi. Cowmareh.”
(I like Aung San Suu Kyi. Good.)

Linquistic flair eluded me, but a little went a long way, and she was soon telling me about her life, travelling back and forward on the slow boat and living in two places. Communicated with a mixture of Burmese, broken English and nodding, most of it was lost in translation, but it was still nice to connect in some small way.

That red thing there on the right is a makeshift cradle with a baby inside. The mother had a pulley system to keep it rocking while she sat a few get away.
Nick enjoying his deck space

As port by port new people, and often huge bundles of goods, came on and off the boat, we managed to relocate to a quiet spot on the Burmese locals’ side. I was drifting in and out of sleep, enjoying the activities going on around me – a mother from the café rocking her baby in a makeshift cot hung from the ceiling, another group of girls enjoying the photos of the foreigner sat with them – when a woman approached me. She was selling rugs. I politely explained I had nowhere to put a rug and that I was travelling for a long time. 

“Perfume? Lipstick?”

I assumed that she had more wares somewhere on her.

“No, thank you, ” I repeated.

People were really impressive with their set-ups. This little guy has a sort of walled den to enjoy.

A short time later, as we were approaching the port of Bagan, another woman came up to me saying the same thing. As it turned out, she wanted to know if I had any perfume or lipstick for her, not vice versa. She wanted to do a swap with her handiwork. Aha! A German couple we had met previously had encountered the same thing the first time they had visited Myanmar, almost 30 years ago – many locals wanting, not money for their goods, but foreign items. Unfortunately, this local was out of luck. Perfume and lipstick were not on my list of backpacking essentials. However, when she mentioned T-shirt, I was happy to be able to oblige. Although this was an item she could get in Myanmar, she said it was expensive where she lived. I’ve no idea if that were true or not, but I had one too many T-shirts anyway, so we were both happy. I took my chance that we were near enough port that I wouldn’t suddenly be surrounded by loads of other locals, all wanting something from me, and handed her the Beatles T-shirt. By the look on her face, she obviously wasn’t a fan. We also weren’t quite near enough port. Shit. As another woman came in my direction, expectantly, I thrust my last 2 sets of books, pencil cases and stationary into her arms and made a run for it to the exit of the boat. We had arrived in Bagan. Phew!


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