I didn't realise how bad the recession was in Europe, and particularly in France, until I found myself on a boat from Mandalay to Bagan. There must be no food in France! French people must have moved here because they cannot afford to eat, the poor dears. I can't think of any other reason for the scrum of French people when they were giving out toast at 8am. Surely it can't be just greed or bad manners. Surely not!
I write this aboard the Malikha 6, a reasonably comfortable boat that takes 11hrs to chug the route on the wide murky Ayeyarwady River, which at this time of year is very lazy but is probably very different in the wet season. There is beer for sale on the boat, which is important, and you can fight for toast for breakfast and nice fried rice for lunch (or just relax and wait, as there seems to be plenty to go around). There are indoor bits with ok aircon, and outdoor bits with uncomfortable rattan chairs. We are outdoors, burning ourselves to a crisp and watching life on this very busy river.
I am sure 90% of the vessels would not be allowed to operate in a more developed country but they manage here, fighting against currents pushing barges filled with coal or other cargo, fishing or transporting wares to sell at markets up and down the river.
On the banks people fish, work fields, wash clothes (not sure wash is the right word as there is loads of sediment in the water) or go about other business in villages made up of wooden shacks in bare dirt yards.
Once again everybody wants to smile and wave and it is very pleasant.
One noticeable contrast we see is the poverty of the villages verses the grandness of religious buildings and monuments. There are huge numbers of gold stupas, gold Buddhas and big temples in areas that obviously lack clean water, sanitation and education. Again this must be similar to Europe in the middle ages with the difference being that, by now, we humans should know better.
Buddha was a nice bloke who wanted to be nice to people and animals. Men use this to create power here in the same way they do elsewhere at the expense of others. The most striking example of this may be the 969 movement, headed by a monk in Mandalay called Ashin Wirathu. He preaches hatred towards Muslims, encouraging that their shops be boycotted, suggesting that Buddhist / Muslim marriages should be banned and creating the atmosphere for violence and persecution. Now, I don't know too much about Buddhist philosophy, but I'm pretty sure it's eightfold path to enlightenment does not include being nasty to people. Or anything else. Even ants. Bah! We didn't visit his Monastery. Rant over.
Again we had a full day of travelling, watching the sun rise as we left Mandalay and set as we arrived at Bagan right on time. It may not be the fastest way to get from A - B but it is a very pleasant way. Would I do it again? Probably. There is now a posher boat that serves cocktails!
The port at Bagan consists of a dry mud river bank with steps cut into the mud, the gang plank was a 12 inch wide plank of bouncy wood and the hand rail was a piece of thick bamboo held at each end by two locals. When we shakily made it to the top of the hill, a few Tiger beers on the wrong side of sober, we were delighted to see that our hotel had managed to sort a cab out for us. I was particularly relieved as I had broken the news to J 24hrs before hand that I had just discovered said hotel wasnt exactly in Bagan. In fact it is to Bagan what Penrith is to Sydney but rather than having 50km of M4 and Paramatta road, we had a single track potholed ridden thing that allowed a top speed of about 50kph. However we saw the funny side of it. Until we arrived at our hotel. More about that later.......