Slow Boat to Bagan

You hop on the back of motorbike before any light is in the sky and ride through the streets of Mandalay, the headlight illuminating a pre-dawn market spread out in the middle of the street. Reaching the dock, you sit down at the ticket table, passport in hand and pay with perfectly crisp American dollars. On the boat there are plastic chairs for you and the other foreigners while families spread out on the floor around you.

The sun rises pale over the Irrawaddy and the night chill lingers. To warm up you head to the back to eat. Rice with a fried egg, thinly shaven crispy garlic and on the side a jar of pickled shallots with a little chili. The bench is low and too close to the bar to be comfortable. You are the only one not squatting on it. On the bar is the ever present thermos of green tea and nearby small teacups in a bowl of water. The sun, food and tea do their parts to warm you and you're ready for the next thirteen hours.

Later you met a couple from New Zealand, Malaysian by birth. Probably your parents age but still loving to rough it with the backpackers yet they are a far cuter couple than you'll ever see backpacking. Perfectly comfortable in the moment. You don't know it then but you'll end up running into them several times in the coming weeks.

You talk on the steps between the decks, avoiding the sun for sometime. She goes to ask the captain something about the voyage but comes back without an answer. He was napping with his head on his wife's lap getting his stubble plucked. A kid very actively steers the boat with his foot while sitting on a ledge behind the helm.

The three of you go sit up in front of him to watch the river go by and the loading of massive baskets of bananas carried on the shoulders of spindly legged men. It takes three to hoist the baskets on to one back and then the carrier scampers to the boat up a narrow board, sarong tucked up to the crotch and a long towel draped over his head and shoulders to keep the dirt off. The only other upfront is a Burmese man wearing a button up shirt and a navy blue sarong. He is a spitting image of Robert Mitchum and just a talkative.

The day drifts along and at major stops women and girls come aboard balancing stainless steel trays of fried snacks, quail eggs, corn and watermelon. One carries chicken and you are tempted to get some until you observe an old lady meticulously handle every piece before buying none. You go back up top to grab something to drink, leaving your bag unattended on the bow. No one steals in Burma, the government doesn't like competition a comedian told you the night before. To avoid another prison term he can only perform in English.

Sitting on the bench is an American girl. You can't remember the last time you talked to an American. She is playing with the little girl whose parents do the food and drinks. She has given her a quail egg and the child is trying to tear the shell off. The child refuses help and eventually throws it hard into a basket. She'll be a handful some day, the girl says.

While this unfolds the boat has stopped and is off loading a surprising amount of cargo and people onto a two story tall river bank in the middle of nowhere. Carts drawn by horses are loaded down with drab colored sacks of goods. On top of one is perched a bright orange inflated animal. Probably a goat. Little kids sit and bounce around on these. The girl laughs and tells you of how she once saw a little kid bouncing insistently on one and when he stopped and got off, his grandmother stood up and gave it a proper kick in the opposite direction.

Later the two of you sit up front, the bag hasn't moved an inch and neither has Robert Mitchum. A coconut with an orchid growing out of it hangs from the second story on one side of the bow. The steering boy deftly guides the boat with his foot, taking advice from the captain and flashing a smile of betel nut stained red teeth. You have a conversation that has nothing to do with traveling and it feels good. The crew drinks from a clay pot hung near the side and women fill bottles of water from it. The girl comments that she is thirsty and is tempted to fill hers.

The rest of the boat is sweltering beneath its tin roof but the bow remains cool on the bottom. More stops are made and the New Zealand couple discreetly takes a few pictures with the maturity of those who have seen enough respect less tourists to know how it should be done.

Something floats by off to the port side, you think it's a log. Is that a pig she asks? It is indeed the bloated carcass of a young pig. Must have fallen off of the crumbling banks. Soon a man goes for water and finds it lacking. He sticks his hand in, swirls it around and then dumps the contents over the side. Producing a bucket tethered with rope he drops it into the silty brown water and refills the clay pot. Turning to her you ask - still want that drink?

S Tiesse

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