My arrival at the Nyaung U waterfront causes considerable confusion. The ‘jetty’, as it is affectionately known, is no more than a dry mud field by the water, with a net for the occasional chinlon match, and a tea house. It is early still; the men in the tea house sit and smoke, their eyes intent on the soccer match on TV, English Premier League. As I walk in, their heads turn. The atmosphere suddenly becomes animated: I am being discussed.
Foreigners occasionally come here to board a boat to Mandalay, a few days up the river, but there is no boat to Mandalay today, and it is therefore not clear what my business in their tea house is. The waiter comes up to my table. ‘Where you go?’, he wants to know.
My plan is to make it all the way to Mrauk U, the ancient capital of Rakhaing, on the border with Bangladesh. It is not very far, geographically speaking — maybe a hundred miles as the crow flies — but the intricacies of Burmese politics and the general unavailability of roads through the Arakan Yoma mountain range make that the journey will take five days, maybe more. I’ve spent several hours piecing together something that resembles a travel plan, and I’m ready for the first leg, the ferry to Pyay, three days down the river.
Facts are hard to come by. The ferry is run by the Inland Water Transport authority, but even after a visit to their office the previous day, the information I have doesn’t seem much more than hearsay. The office is the private residence of its single employee (or vice versa), adorned with a few wall posters with timetables. Only one of the timetables is in English. The single employee insists that it is inaccurate.
So it is not with complete confidence that I tell the waiter that of my plan to catch the boat to Pyay. But he doesn’t laugh. ‘Pyay!’, he shouts for the benefit of all those present. The men return to their soccer match, satisfied that I am not in the wrong place, even though I am there at the wrong time. The waiter gestures me to sit down. The six o’clock boat will not be here at six. ‘Wait,’ he says.
I sit and drink tea, and look around. The mud field is something of a Myanmar in miniature: a horse cart loaded with vegetables; trishaw drivers in longyi; scruffy dogs. A clean white van delivers a group of clean white people — middle aged tourists in khakis who disappear on a day trip. Time passes gradually, and just as gradually the arrival of the ferry is postponed. It will be here at seven, or eight, or possibly at nine. I finish my third tea. No boat. One of Life’s Lessons Learned the Hard Way: checking the time frequently makes it go slower, not faster. The ferry, then, arrives promptly at ten.
The Taingkyosaung was built somewhere in Japan, in 1955, when men were still men and modesty was a virtue. Myanmar is, after all, the Land of Enchantment, where machinery never dies. The boat is loaded with cargo: earthenware, sculptures from Mandalay, endless amounts of woven baskets. There is a small truckload of bananas on board, at least five hundred kilos of garlic. There is a bicycle called Robin Hood. And there is a collection of human beings, occupying the upper deck, amidst a profusion of blankets and the plastic baskets that Burmese women use instead of bags. I am the odd one out and a source of great curiosity. Faced with the choice between finding a place on deck or enjoying the communal privacy of the only cabin, I decide to treat myself. You only live once, after all.
I do not speak more than a single word of Burmese, and the four people in the cabin speak no more than perhaps ten words of English between them, but smiles are universal, and we mime ourselves through a considerable conversation. They are a family — father, mother and their two grown daughters — retuning from a pilgrimage to Mandalay. The father takes great interest in my map of Myanmar, and I point out where I have been and where I’m planning to go. Once it becomes apparent that I have come all this way on my own, I am immediately adopted. Before it is even noon, I sit on the cabin floor with my temporary family and share in their meal.
The river journey is surprisingly monotonous. The Ayeyarwady, for all its historical and economic significance, is an ugly brown river flowing between ugly brown banks. Patches of sand alternate with patches of mud. There is pretty much nothing to be seen outside the confines of the boat. And so the passengers amuse themselves by looking at each other. I posses the singular quality of being completely incomprehensible, so even the simplest acts attract a dedicated audience. I am being watched as I drink tea, as I read. I am being intently watched as I try to solve a sudoku.
Every now and again we stop at a field of dry mud that is some town’s particular take on the ‘jetty’. The Taingkyosaung blows its horn and a frenzy of loading and unloading follows. We lose most of the earthenware, and the bananas. In return we get a few dozen empty oil drums and more woven baskets. I’m not so sure this is a good deal, but then it’s not up to me. In the absence of machinery, everything is done by hand. Tiny men with impeccable abs carry loads which must be twice their weight, if not more. There is no doubt that Myanmar would be a gold medal candidate in the Olympics of Manual Labor. Then, before we set off, the oil drums are filled with gasoline, to be distributed along the river. It was a good deal after all.
We dock for the night at yet another field along the river. This one is different in the sense that there is no village attached to it. But we have the good fortune that one of the floating markets that ply the river has also docked here for the night. The early hours of the evening are well spent comparing prices and trading sandalwood for plastic toys. I buy candy for my temporary family. As we run out of electricity, there is nothing left to do but sleep. Day one is done.
Loud music pleases the nat, the guardian spirits, and is a fixture of Burmese life. The little cabin is alive with it before dawn. I am not equally pleased, but awake all the same. The father and I mime our way through a conversation of some kind of trouble that keeps us from leaving. Could it be the engine? I have no idea. The morning echoes the previous day. We might leave at seven, or eight, or possibly at nine. I bathe in the river, read and wait.
On purpose, I do not check the time at all, but there is no denying the increasing heat. Around midday we move, but only to steady ourselves for more time on the riverbank. There is nothing to do but read. I share another meal with the family and learn the finer points of Burmese etiquette: it is permissible to lick the communal spoons, apparently, and to burp in moderation. I bathe once more in the river as the sun begins to set. This might not be a three day journey after all.
The next morning, I awake with a sense of expectation. The evening before, the captain and one of his men have visited the cabin. Perhaps mime is part of their official training — either way I finally have an understanding of our situation. It is not the boat that has been the problem, it is the river. The water level yesterday was too low to proceed. We are set to try again today.
By now, some twenty ships are moored on the riverbanks around our ferry. They carry cargo, mostly: lumber, gravel, shiny new bulldozers. It is obvious that somewhere in Myanmar money is being made, even if it isn’t here, exactly. In between the cargo boats, small motorboats weave their way. Men with poles measure the water level, shout and whistle. When they are satisfied, a slow ballet of ships begins. One by one, the boats leave the shore and make their way into the navigable channel, their pilots keeping track of the treacherous sands. Big cargo trumps small cargo, simple. We are one of the last to leave. But at least we are on our way again.
The day moves slowly forward, as do we. Somewhere along the way, time has ceased to exist. As we reach Magwe, only one third of the way to Pyay, two and a half days have passed. We go through the familiar routine every now and again: we load, we unload, we move on. Sometimes hawkers board, offering a welcome opportunity for change in diet — anything to offset the river scurvy. But most of the time we are just grinding away, mile after mile, and waiting. We keep going until well past sunset, and set off again early the next day. The Taingkyosaung, it seems, is eager to get this journey over with.
We finally arrive at dusk. Pyay, though closer to Yangon, seems remote in comparison to Nyaung U. There is not much in the way of tourist infrastructure. Public service announcements that elsewhere in Myanmar proclaim ‘Warmly welcome and take care of tourists’ here simply state ‘Take care tourists’. Could this be a bad sign? At first, it seems so. There is only one official bus connection between the city and the coast — an eight-seat minivan that shuttles to Taunggok, on the other side of the Arakan Yoma — and it has been booked out for the next few days.
The Pyay bus station possesses a saving grace, however — a girl who works for one of the other companies. Her busses run back to Nyaung U, at this stage the one way I definitely don’t want to go. But when she finds out where I am headed, she decides that I could use some help. There is a way. Apparently, buses from Yangon to Ngapali, an up-market resort on the coast, use the same route. They don’t officially stop in Pyay, but you can still get on board. ‘Trust me,’ she says. This will be a lesson in getting things done, Burmese style.
My new friend takes my money and sends this to Yangon with one of the early morning busses. She then calls the bus company to book a seat, and instructs them which bus will carry the cash payment. The bus company writes out the ticket, and sends it back, also on a bus. It arrives in Pyay at the end of the day. With the ticket, we go to the toll bridge — where what is now ‘my bus’ must stop anyway — and simply wait for it to arrive. There is no charge for any of this — the one thing that matters to her is that I get a good impression of Myanmar. And I do. I most definitely do.
The bus sets off on what my Lonely Planet describes as ‘one of Myanmar’s hardest, bounciest, most stomach-churning trips’. It may be that I have spent four days on a boat doing nothing, and a full day in Pyay waiting, but to me the fact that there is even a road to begin with is a small blessing, and whatever bus takes me across it has my full support. I’ve taken my seat in the front of the bus and see the gravel disappear under the headlights. Tucked in on all sides against the cold, and gently swinging from side to side with every bend in the winding road, I doze off into dreams of arrival. Sleep is the great ally of the long distance traveler.
Taunggok is there, all of a sudden, in the way that all destinations have a habit of simply appearing in the early hours of the morning. Still half asleep as I leave the bus, I am besieged by a small army of taxi drivers. It is clear to them that I’m here for the seven o’clock boat to Sittwe — there is simply nothing else to do in the town. Soon I zoom through the dark fields, towards the water. We arrive with an hour to spare. As the rising sun turns the sky purple, I pinch myself. It’s hard to believe that a connection exists between two legs of this hopeless journey.
The fast boat to Sittwe is the epitome of Burmese luxury travel. The chairs in brand new covers, the pathway decorated with plastic flowers. The air conditioning works on full volume, as do the television sets, alternating between local pop music and over-acted soap operas. They must be quite good, judging by the amount of people laughing out loud. We are all pacified with an endless supply of snacks and drinks. I try to look out the window to see the landscape changing. But the tinted glass paints the world in a perpetual sunset, and I doze off, again.
Time has continued to progress without me. By the time we arrive in Sittwe, it is past sunset and the only thing I know is that I desperately need to brush my teeth. I don’t see much more of the town than my guesthouse and a restaurant down the same street. One leg of the trip remains. I have another boat to catch in the morning.
The ferry from Sittwe to Mrauk U is another slow boat, similar to the Taingkyosaung that I have come to know so well. It is packed to the brim with people. More bags and baskets, more packed lunches. Suspended from the roof hangs a cage. The melancholy bird inside looks out to sea, to the seagulls that engulf us.
It is quite cold, this early in the morning. I wrap myself in my longyi once again and try to get comfortable in my deckchair. The landscape is much different now, greener, richer. We pass through fields with cows grazing, and stop every now and again at some nameless village. Hawkers board the boat with fried fish and boiled eggs. Pastoral perfection.
I cannot keep my mind from wandering. Seven days now, I have spent on this single journey, seven days. And by the time it ends I’ll be a mere hundred miles away from where it started — knowing, moreover, that I’ll have to backtrack most of the way to get out again. Will it be worth it? What do I even expect?
I’m well into my third year of life on the road, and still struggle to answer the most elementary questions. Why do we travel? What good does it do? I want it to be more than simply passing time. I want it to be more than having fun. Is travel a mere middle-class aspiration, a collection of impressions, a collection of experiences? Dead butterflies or postage stamps, to be stored in some album? I want it to be more. Perhaps travel is a plastic art, a sculpture of the soul. Perhaps —
The ship’s horn blows, my train of thought is halted. After all this time, it still comes as something of a surprise. There it is: I have arrived.
(For Sophie, who told me to write more.)