The Road to Mandalay

Melodic “Mandalay” and Kipling’s melancholy poem conjure up nostalgic, exotic images. Shade trees, tea houses and occasional colonnades hint at hidden colonial majesty, but Mandalay is now an ugly city and we are happy to leave it for our float down Kipling’s Road to Mandalay, the wide Ayeyarwady.
There are no expressways here so our taxi weeved south through the tangle of Chinese-built trucks and motorbikes; near the launch we saw more horsecarts and petrol trucks. Finding our steamer was an adventure, but our driver “Peter” spoke English and showed good judgement, and eventually he found our ship the Katha Pandaw, berthed on the Ayeyarwady‘s right bank below one of Mandalay’s many golden stupas.

If our small ship was elegant, the boarding showed Mandalay’s modesty… a scamper across the sandy bank between Burmese bathing in the muddy water. Our crew washed sand from shoes once aboard, and the boys enjoyed slipping in socks about the Katha Pandaw’s fine teakwood deck.

There are about 16 tourists aboard, hailing from Brussels, Frankfurt, New York, Fremont and of course Tahoe. We gathered on the open upper back deck for a safety and orientation briefing before scattering about the boat. Sue and I are settling in on the front deck enjoying the breezy view as I write; the boys are holed up in their small but elegant teak cabin playing cards.

The food here is extraordinary for such a small kitchen. Always the foodie-photographer, Sue documented the color and presentation of our feast of fresh fruit, acadia lunch tempura, century egg salad, noodle salad, coleslaw, butter fish with black bean sauce, grilled chicken with butter sauce, sweet corn soup and Chinese cabbage with mushroom oyster sauce and other treats. Ben ate bread.

I napped in a sunny, breezy bow lounge chair for a bit then we landed on the left bank to visit a small village. At first it felt a bit tour-ship contrived, a bunch of fortunate Westerners trundling off in clean clothes among the peasants. But soon enough the smiling children won us all over, and the locals were sincere in their welcomes.

Like Mandalay on a much smaller scale, this town had fallen from colonial prosperity – once prosperous businesses built Raj era buildings which the communist/military government “collectivized” in the early 70’s… Burma’s Big Brother couldn’t command the economy and Adam Smith’s free hand dug undergound, creating a thriving black market for eggs, butter and other necessities. Handsome buildings fell derelict, an progressed paused.

From this novice’s perspective it appears Bruma is making modest steps towards democracy and a freer market; there appears to be a good deal of foreign investment here. Indeed I’ve accepted an invitation to meet with a Hanoi investment banker to explore Burmeshbj solar development; should be interesting.

Back aboard the Katha Pandaw, we motored downstream towards Pagan. The Ayeyarwady drains a broad, fertile valley; it’s subject to seasonal flows, rising +30’ during the summer monsoon, and running low during these winter dry seasons. Sandbars emerge and the main current cuts a moving channel that zigzags across the river; the captains must be experienced and skilled to navigate the river, avoid traffic and fishing nets. I expect there are many parallels to reconstruction-era paddleboat life on the Mississippi, and I take the opportunity to discuss them with the boys.

The easy afternoon led to a nice chat with other travelers. All are curious about the extent of our plans, and appreciative that we’re taking the boys on the adventure. I ask how others discovered this arcane Pandaw day trip; all but we are on package tours, and again they’re impressed with Sue’s travel planning prowess.

While Ben tears through a Harry Potter book and Max devours the Pandaw tour guide (they offer even more exotic trips up the Mekong, Yangtzee, Chitdawin, Ganges, Amazon…), Sue and I take some steamy sunset shots. Then the crew distracts us with a Longhi wearing introduction, cooking demonstrations, and traditional song, before closing with a cute rendition of “Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain”… don’t ask me how they picked it.

After dinner Max and I played Connect Four on a beautiful teak gameboard before settling in to our elegant, efficient all-teak cabins for bed. We slept well and the ship shuddered awake at six, reminding us that breakfast feast awaits… which I’m about to enjoy so that’s it for now.

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