The International Steam Pages

Another Luxury Irrawaddy River Cruise

In 2006, Yuehong and I enjoyed a gentle cruise down the Irrawaddy from Katha to Mandalay. At the time, with insufficient preparation, it came under the 'not to be missed or repeated' category. But after a train journey to Myitkyina (capital of Kachin State and the only place in South-East Asia where a knowledge of Mandarin Chinese is more useful than English) and visits to a few rice mills we were offered the chance to return south on the river to Katha, the upper part of which route had, until recently, been totally off limits to foreigners. Like the proverbial football match it was a game of two halves (or strictly in this case three, the last of which was boring in comparison with what went before). The first section required us to board a 'river bus' which (with one exception shown below) made steady progress until we stopped next to a sand bank and were invited to disembark. Yuehong gingerly 'walked the plank', while Yiran looks on apprehensively.

Thereby, joining the other passengers who had already gone ashore.

It was, of course, the lunch stop. The only good thing about the Chinese influence in this area is the imported beer which is as good (or bad) as the local variety and less than half the price, even if the 'best before' date should be checked carefully before opening it.

As hinted, progress had not been totally smooth, one of the propeller blades had 'failed' at high speed which brought us literally to a grinding halt in mid-stream. After being rescued by the balancing working, the crew set to work to dismantle the prop-shaft housing.

Access to the rear balcony to monitor the repair was via the side of the boat:

It was a well trodden path, not least because it was the only route to 'the facilities', in fact you could watch progress on installing the replacement unit while relieving yourself. 

The first day terminated in the late afternoon at Sinbo, a small riverside village full of wooden houses and Chinese motor-bikes. The guest house here had a toilet which made the above feature look a luxury item and rats who ate Yiran's last piece of chocolate. No alarm call was needed as a Kachin couple did the job by squabbling at full volume from just before 06.00. But the natives were friendly, especially one very small one:

As before, departure for Barmo was more than an hour later than flagged, this was on a Thai style long boat, with no room for toilet or spare parts:

The only word I can use to describe this section of the journey is fabulous. This part of the Irrawaddy passes between a range of hills, 'gorge' might be putting it a little too strongly, but few people live and work here and those that do try their best to exploit its resources. At the moment, it's all on a pretty small scale and if non-sustainable, at least the ecological damage is not yet very great. This has to have been the biggest river fish I have ever seen (I will spare you the sight of the dismembered Sambar which was used as 'bushmeat'):  

With almost no facilities available on the river side, it makes sense to 'live on the job':

Bamboo regenerates relatively quickly: 

Unfortunately, tropical hard wood is not so easily replaced: 

Far more insidious is the incursion of gold prospectors destroying the river banks: 

Overall, it was a great day, even Yiran, who had looked totally bemused for the first two weeks, enjoyed it:

Traffic was pretty light, now and again we saw another boat chugging up-river, this one just as we passed a small rock top pagoda.

But, for me, I have to confess that the highlight of the whole day came when we made yet another 'request stop' landing as another better laden passenger boat crossed us: 

One of the results of a hard life is that the Burmese have a good sense of balance. Not so this 'modern girl', who tried to 'walk on water' and ended up as an entrant to the 'Miss Burma Wet T-Shirt 2007' competition. But, like all her compatriots, even in adversity, she saw the funny side of it and came back from a quick change of clothes with a huge smile. 

Barmo shows every sign of succumbing to Chinese 'new money', within two years it will be totally ruined. Our Lonely Planet Guide raves about the third part of the journey from Barmo to Katha but it was written while the previous section was off limits. The pictures in the guest house promised us a 'luxury river bus' but it was no better or worse than the first boat from Myitkyina. The start was inauspicious, the dry season river was so shallow that we had to anchor to a sandbank to await half the passengers who came in another small boat.

Given the perilous walk to the rear of the boat, it was not surprising that the middle class Burmese ladies took advantage of the dry land facilities:

This time, there was barely time to stop if the journey was to be completed in daylight, at the small settlements, passengers came to us in mid-stream:

And, en route, we were also ambushed by the dinner ladies:

Some of the more influential citizens of Burma are determined to wreak environmental mayhem on their country. This was the kind of sight we saw time after time all day. Alas, by the time they are called to account, they will no doubt have escaped with their ill gotten gains to some friendly neighbouring country which will have gratefully taken delivery of the timber while claiming to be conserving their own dwindling stocks. Such is the reality of political life in this part of the world, hundreds of years of ecological balance will be wiped out in less than a generation of greed and the ordinary people of the country will pay for it when Armageddon strikes. 

After our previous experience of optimistic scheduling, we had declined to take 'Proud Mary' which had left more than two hours before us. We flew past it just after lunch, this time she just made it to Katha before dark by which time we were in the last available rooms in the guest house and gently pissed on the cold draught beer from nearby:

 Katha riverside is extremely attractive, the guest house warm and welcoming but basic. I was glad to know it would be our last river trip of the 2007 bash.


More like this of our oddball lifestyle?

Click here for the first Luxury Irrawaddy River Cruise

Click here for Climb Every Mountain.

Click here for a House in the Country.

These are the individual pages from the 2007 trip:

Read more about our travels in:

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson