Cruising along the Irrawaddy River sounds implausibly romantic. I’m sure it is when you’re on a teak cruiser with luxury cabins. For a group like ours, we were much more interested in the views than the boat itself. We had been promised simple food and a relaxing ride.
We hopped aboard our lovely little boat and headed up to the top deck, where deckchairs beckoned under the canopy.
As the diesel motor started to chug and we sank bank into the chairs, a slow, stealthy sleep descended on all but two of us. Resistance was futile and I, for one, gave in for at least two hours.
When I did rouse myself to join some others at the prow of the boat, I was woozy but relaxed. With nothing to do for two days chat and relaxation were the order of the day.
The Irrawaddy wasn’t as I had imagined it. I had pictured a densely wooded riverbank and instead we were greeted by wide open vistas dotted with an occasional hamlet. It seemed much quieter than I had anticipated. Gradually, though, my eyes became accustomed to picking out the detail – women washing clothes in the shallows, children playing, the odd farmer driving an ox cart – the river is so wide that it takes a while to see what’s going on.
Simple food, said our guide. We feasted on some of the best food of our trip, with four or five different dishes at each meal, all cooked in a tiny galley down below.
Five was deemed beer o’clock. Lazing on a boat deck, beer in hand, awaiting a spectacular sunset is as good as it gets. The sunset exceeded all expectations. When I went to Egypt a few years ago it rained when I went on a Nile felucca trip, so I missed out on the great photos you’re supposed to be able to achieve on a river. The Irrawaddy more than made up for that disappointment.
Night fell quickly and half the group got tucked up in their sleeping bags on deck straight after supper. The rest of us walked the gangplank to the beach and ran up the steep sandy bank. As the stars began to wink and shift, we instigated random conversations that took us on winding paths of childlike laughter.
Our tour guide and the crew were a few metres away, watching a film that was making them roar with laughter. Our tour leader’s laugh is irresistable and each time they chuckled we started laughing. No-one would have believed we were sober! Despite our imaginings the four horsemen of the apocalypse didn’t come to claim us and we returned to the boat in the dead of night, which when we looked at our watches was roughly 8.30pm.
It was a cold, damp night but none of us would have missed it. Waking on each hip-crunching turn, a quick glance of stars made me smile and fall back to sleep. Best of all was being awake before dawn. It was outrageously cold and the chanting from a nearby monastery was relentless but the colours were the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Thick mist cloaked the entire landscape, casting mauve, grey and pale pink across the water. No-one spoke. It was too sacred a time to break the peace.
Ghostly fishing boats emerged as the light changed and slowly, slowly there was a hint of the dawn.
I have never experienced a spectacular river dawn. I doubt I’ll see another quite so special.
Later that day we stopped off at Sagaing Hill on the way to Mandalay. A hill crowded with monasteries and temples, it is a lovely place to while away a few hours. Smiles and waves greeted us the entire time we were there and the buddhas and stupas were as glorious as ever.
Two days on the Irrawaddy were the perfect pause before hectic and dusty Mandalay. Coming in to dock, we saw a living tapestry seething with life.
And, when we climbed off, a magnificent rooster greeted us.
By Carole Scott
p.s apologies for the rather ugly watermarks. I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet but don’t have enough time to re-do my pics today.