Jeannine Williamson - Down the Chindwin and Journey to Places that Few Tourists Venture

When we are on the muddy bank of Myanmar’s Chindwin River, a group of farmers stops their work to watch our erratic progress. A small committee gathers on the boat to welcome us. We walk with our guide through the small settlement of Kae Daung, which is resembles a scene from the Pied Piper.

Our downstream journey from Homalin has been hastened. So the captain decides to stop at several unscheduled destinations during our long journey to Monywa. We stopped at this village twice. Almost everyone is much inquisitive about us.

We see men who are wearing the traditional skirt-style longyi grin. They reveal teeth stained vivid red from chewing betel nuts. And women are adorned with the yellowish-white cosmetic thanaka on the faces. While children giggle and run away squealing as if someone chases them.

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When ruled by the military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011, Myanmar (Burma) was closed from the outside world. Until now, remote areas have been habitations of those who have had little or no contact with foreigners. Honestly, we were rare tourists during our time on the Chindwin.

One of the pioneers in river cruise in this charming country is Burma historian Paul Strachan. 2015 is the year of the 20th anniversary of his cruise line, coincided with the 150th anniversary of the colonial Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. These events inspired Pandaw’s ships in each journeys.

We are on the two-deck Kalay Pandaw, which is beautifully decorated in teak and brass. There are only 10 passengers and 9 crews, so it is very quickly to know each other. The upper deck has a combined sun deck and outside dining area. It is able to say that any journey is governed by Mother Nature. One early morning, dense mist covers the water and obscures the riverbanks and surrounding hillsides. So we can't leave until it lifts. And also because of the change of submerged sandbars in the rain season, we are stuck at mid-river on the following day. We have lunch while two crews try to control the ship back into a deeper channel.

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We just sail during the day and watch timeless vistas of fishermen casting nets from tiny boats, women panning for gold in the shallows, and farmers ploughing the fertile soil on the banks. There is no railway or significant road infrastructure. Boats laden with oil and ferries transporting people and supplies between villages cross our ship. Sometimes, vast rafts of teak timber of bamboo float in the river. We are also interested in nights on boat, when sky is covered by light pollution. So we can see the Southern Cross, Capricornus, Scorpius and other constellations from the kaleidoscope of stars. It is so beautiful and captivating.

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We visit the Pho Win Taung hill caves, where is populated by monkeys and filled ancient images of Buddha and wall murals. We also come to the colorful Thanbodi Temple outside Monywa. On another day, we travel by bikes crossing furrowed tracks that are made by the monsoon. 

When coming back our boat, we are served cold towels and the complimentary cocktail of the day. Then we enjoy spiced Burmese dishes at dinner.

After the more than 100-kilometer transfer to Mandalay, the country’s second city and old capital, I watch the final magnificent sunset in this captivating land.

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» Read more: Unless You See the Chindwin, Don't Think that You Know Burma

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