Recently I stumbled across an old travel log I wrote back in October of 2006 about a slow river trip in Myanmar. Much has changed there in the past decade, but the quiet riverways are still there for those who need a break from city stress.
Slow Boat Through Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar
There’s not much to do on a slow boat trip up a long river in Myanmar. There is no shuffleboard deck. No waiters in neatly pressed white shorts to serve cold rum punch or garden salads, which is not to say there is nothing to eat or drink. No reggae band to make the sweat feel worth it. Thankfully, there is plenty to see even during the thunderous heart of monsoon season. The landscape is an idyllic pastoral utopia of green, lush, fertile earth that literally erupts with life. The river, its banks and surrounding paddies dominate the entertainment program. Rice farmers work as they have for thousands of years. Draft animals slop through the slough. The only motor to be heard is that of our big rusty boat toiling upriver from Sitwe to Mrauk Oo. The constantly reliable low churning drone of the engine distracts the animals and the farmers as they stop a moment to appraise the passing faces. Then they are back to their task before our gentle wake even reaches their shore. The hours tick away quickly as the passing view mesmerizes the passengers bend after bend. Periodically the boat slows to a halt at a rickety wooden jetty where some passengers disembark and others hop aboard. Chickens change hands and fish mongers ply passengers with salted fish on a stick. Hardboiled eggs are just as popular.
Occasionally a thunderclap introduces a fresh barrage of rain. Passengers curl under umbrellas and raincoats. The deck is covered but the tempest laughs at roofs and simply makes a sidelong approach. Yet, a bundle of three opened umbrellas makes a rather effective shelter. We are tightly packed and neighbors naturally form umbrella linked alliances. Like the defensive position of a broad-shielded phalanx, we generally successfully repel the volley of water. These frequent downpours set the schedule between eating, dozing and battening down under any available plastic. After the rains retreat the people are enervated and activity swells into almost a carnival like atmosphere as people reposition themselves to share food and talk about anything and everything. Burmese sarongs or longyis are retied around thin waists, wet clothes are flung over rusty side rails. People laugh at seemingly everything.
After a while a lull sneaks aboard and the people begin to doze in heaps all about the deck. One old man stands out. He is moving about stepping over lazing families. Almost frantically the old man worked, running worn wires round the roof beams and connecting them to an old scratchy speaker box on one side of the boat and an old recycled camp-style megaphone on the other. The initial squelch from the speaker system roused even those most deeply dozing. We positioned himself on the floor in the middle of the rousing crowd. He held a bulging bag in his lap and a small portable cassette player on a knee. Knowing most people were no fully intrigued, he pushed play and a sound spewed from the speakers that would have sent any cats aboard swimming home in fright. The emanating incantations seemed to even scare the ubiquitous clouds away for a time. The skies would not steal the old man’s thunder. Everyone was awake now as the sounds of Buddhist prayer-chanting mixed with varied strings loomed over the entire boat. The chants evoked auspiciousness and health. Suddenly the man pushed the stop button and a silence hung in the air. He took a moment to unplug the cassette player and replace it with a microphone deftly pulled from his bagful of tricks. Another ear-splitting squelch underscored the anticipation, followed by a theatrical pause that had the crowd nearly pulling their hair out.
The man stood slowly placing his bag at his feet, straightening his neatly wrapped longyi and flattening his neatly tailored though slightly threadbare Burmese waste coat. Suddenly he unleashed a barrage of phrasings that tested the parameters of the speakers’ range. He was indeed animated. He pointed at children, he pointed at old ladies. He swept a thin over the heads of the crowd. They smiled and laughed drew in quick short breaths as he jutted a pointed finger in their collective face. He was a modern day medicine man hawking his magical cure-all: Dr. Doe Thon’s 8-Herbs Tooth Powder. This was to be used as a toothpaste for of course, clean healthy strong teeth. The benefits don’t stop there. Usage also increases hair growth, general virility and especially aids in the preservation of internal organs. He constantly referred to himself as a proof-positive example of the powders powers. It was clear that he had his own teeth. With all the rattling of his jaw and jowls it seems his teeth were quite strong indeed. His hair was jet black suspiciously with no streaks of gray. It couldn’t be described as luxuriant but not as sparse as the hair on most 70-year-old heads. He was a bit on the thin side but his overt enthusiasm belied vim and vigor. The powder came in small sachets with a conventional label featuring a black and white photo of a much younger Dr. Doe. Each packet cost 200 kyats or around 15 cents. Dr. Doe passed a number of samples around the audience. Many of the mesmerized masses eagerly perused the packet and sniffed at the powder inside. A few tasted a pinch to discover a not-unpleasant flavor. Alas, only a few were sold. After interest in his pitch waned and another lull was imminent, the old man at down again. He carefully replaced the samples in the big bulging bag of packets. The speakers were taken down and the worn wire wound in a neat bundle. He replaced his microphone in the same bag. He patiently rewound his introductory cassette tape with a long fresh cheroot, before patiently and contentedly smoking it.
After a time, the boat was silent again as people lounged and lazed across the deck. The old man laid down with his head pillowed by his bulging bag of powder sachets. A thunderclap again forewarned of looming rain clouds. Dr. Doe Thon didn’t have an umbrella. He woke and began to look for a dry haven. Suddenly a number of people nearby invited him to join them under their broad shield of umbrellas. He disappeared under the protective dome. He was sure to bring his bag within as well. A few more sales were made there under those umbrellas. When the rain finally cleared those folks came out with bright fresh smiles, firmly convinced in the veracity of Dr. Doe Thon and his 8-Herbs Tooth Powder.
A slow moving meandering boat trip upriver is a momentous way to see the best of Myanmar. There is very little to do but eat, sleep and see. Fortunately, the food is good, the rest is sound and the sights are surreal. After many hours the boat reaches Mrauk Oo and the passengers slowly disembark and begin walking home. Dr. Doe Thon walked away slowly along a muddy road. He carried his heavy bags and tucked under a thin arm was a new umbrella someone had given him. The sun was shining momentarily but there were other clouds that would have their way. Dr. Doe was well prepared with a proven cure-all and a sound umbrella.