Sunday, 9 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 4 (Sun, 9 Mar)

Itinerary: Day 2 Sunday 9th March (Bagan & Cruise). After breakfast join the guide to explore some of Bagan’s local markets selling wood carvings, fabrics, longyis and rattan goods. See Myanmar’s famous lacquerware being made. Alternatively, you can hire a bicycle or horse-drawn cart and explore this enchanting area on your own. Mid-morning the 'Road To Mandalay' begins its cruise North towards Mandalay. Relax on the top deck and watch the fascinating river life glide by. The guide lectures on local places and customs. The ship moors mid-river for the evening. A casual cocktail party is followed by dinner on board.

In fact, there was not only a morning tour, as advertised, but a very early morning tour to see a special procession of monks arranged for the benefit of a party of photographers. However, I didn't catch either as the ship had arranged a bicycle for seven a.m. Breakfast is available from six a.m., so even after a cooked breakfast, I was ready for 06:40, but so was the bicycle, which came with two local boys, about nine or ten also on bicycles, as chaperones. The initial roads were just sand with deep, soft ruts and I underestimated the power needed to keep control on the soft bits and suffered the indignity of falling off after 100 yards. As if by magic, a doctor appeared and took charge. He was very concerned that there were a few drops of blood, although neither of us could find any cut to account for it. He introduced himself as the Ship's Doctor - apparently on hand quite by chance whilst taking his morning constitutional. Honour was satisfied by allowing him to apply a plaster to an old cut. The villagers were most amused by this unexpected excitement!

The journey proceeded without further incident, with the older lad leading the way and the younger in the rear. The temperature was very comfortable as the sun was still rising above the horizon, the pedalling easy as the roads hereabouts are almost level. Minor cavils are that the saddle was way too high for me and the brakes were shot, so every stop was something of a controlled accident. We passed many, many temples so I was able to stop frequently, check the sun and make a photograph. All too soon, we arrived at the golden temple complex of Shwezigon Paya. I spent some time looking at the early morning activities, longer trying to extricate myself from the sometimes literal clutches of the souvenir vendors.

Eventually, we set off back to the ship. With different lighting conditions, there were different temples to photograph and I spent some time exploring Khayminga temple with my younger companion, climbing quite high to get better views across the Bagan Plain. The ship planned to sail at ten o'clock and I was back in plenty of time, having said goodbye to my new young friends.

Pictures taken on my bike ride.

The river is a major communications artery, so I spent some time on the open top deck watching the various activities, before honouring a promise to visit the doctor in his clinic room to allow him to have another look at my injury. Once he was satisfied, I was happy to laze aound until lunch, another buffet, this time served on the open top deck. We continued sailing upstream in the afternoon. There was a demonstration of 'Thanaka', the sun screen-cum-makeup used in Myanmar. Later on, I was invited into the wheelhouse by the very hospitable Captain and spent a fascinating half hour learning about the ship's systems and propulsion. Shortly after 6 p.m., the sun set, with some interesting sky colours looking west. Then we anchored for the night in mid-channel. The river is far too dangerous to navigate at night.

Pictures of the afternoon cruising.

As it gets dark, there is an informal cocktail party on the top deck, where the passengers sit around in dim lighting chatting and drinking. Then, dinner in the restaurant. At 9.45 p.m., we troop up to the top deck for a 'Surprise'. Looking upstream a couple of hundred yards, red and yellow lights extend across the river, and a boat can just be made out, setting out more lights. There are over 2000 candles, each on a tiny raft, with a cellophane colour filter. The effect is unexpected and wonderful. The current quickly carries the lights towards us and, after a few minutes, our ship is surrounded by twinkling lights which disappear downstream. This is a re-enactment of the traditional Buddhist Candle Festival which takes place later in the year, laid on especially for us - magical!

Of course, the name of the ship was inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem:-

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say,
"Come you back, you British Soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay;
Can't you 'ear their paddles clunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-Yaw-Lat jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
Bloomin' idol made o' mud-- Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd--
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!

On the road to Mandalay ...

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,
She'd git 'er little banjo an' she'd sing "Kulla-la-lo!"
With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek again my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.
Elephants a-piling teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!

On the road to Mandalay ...

But that's all shove be'ind me -- long ago and fur away,
An' there ain't no 'buses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."
No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;

On the road to Mandalay ...

I am sick 'o wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an' grubby 'and--
Law! wot do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

On the road to Mandalay ...

Ship me somewheres East of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', and it's there that I would be--
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

The poem was written by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and was first published in 1892 in 'Barrack Room Ballads'. In 1908, Oley Speaks (1874-1948) set the words to music and this is the form in which I and many people knew it - I was unaware until planning this trip that it was by Kipling. Apparently, Frank Sinatra used the first and last verses on one of his recordings but Kipling's family disapproved of this interpretation. 'Moulmein', referred to in the poem, is now called Mawlamyine.