Monday, 6 September 2010

Katha and Shwe Paw Island

Saturday 28th August 2010

The ship continued its journey upstream to Katha. This is one of the towns created by the British as an administrative centre. One claim to fame is that George Orwell's last posting with the Colonial Police was at Katha, before he contracted malaria and left the police to become an author.

We anchored mid-channel opposite the town and the International Signal for 'I am at anchor' (a black 'ball') was hoisted from the short flagpole at the bow. I spotted our two Fast Boats moored at the landing stage and shortly they moved across to our ship to ferry the passengers ashore. It had rained heavily during the night but Katha was gently warming up and it was quite pleasant.

Landing at Katha - "A long line of trishaws were waiting for us ..."

A long line of trishaws were waiting for us and members of the crew were allocating us, two at a time, to individual trishaws. The trishaw is a three-wheeled cycle able to carry two passengers. There are two main types. In one type, the passenger seats are two abreast behind the driver and the machine has two wheels at the rear. The other version is a bicycle plus 'sidecar' where the sidecar has one seat facing forward and a second seat facing to the rear.

The trishaws took us to a fairly green area of town clearly laid out by the British. We walked past a grain warehouse which we were told was a Government Store and paused to look at a single-storey Colonial building which I believe was the British Club originally. We made our way back to the trishaws past the former British tennis courts. Another ride in the trishaw took us through what was clearly the British residential area. The layout reminded me of the similar residential area in Maymyo.

George Orwell's house today.

We stopped at the two-story house, timber-framed with brick infill and a corrugated iron roof set in around a couple of acres which had been the home of George Orwell in the 1920s. Today, it is very run-down but provides homes for a number of Burmese families. We were allowed to walk around inside the house. The unmarried lady upstairs spoke quite good English and was happy to chat with the foreigh vistors. The married lady we met downstairs did not speak English but was also happy for us to wander round. Her son (eleven years old, I think) showed us his workbook and he had considerable talent as an artist.

Then it was back on the trishaws and our convoy made its way to the Market. On the periphery of the Market there were a number of permanent shops and tearooms. I looked at one clothes-making shop where a man was cutting out material using cardboard patterns. I couldn't work out what the cut pieces would become. Next door, there was a picture-framing and mirror shop. In the back was the raw aluminium extrusion which would be cut and mitred as necessary. A number of sample mirrors and pictures were on display. A recurrent theme was a picture of a young person on graduation wearing a mortar board and gown. We saw this sort of picture proudly displayed in a number of better-class homes we visited on our travels. Outside this shop was a very clean Chinese-made 'Kenso' motor bicycle. I was intrigued by the 'Manchester United' custom saddle. Further observation showed that numerous Premier League clubs are featured. Then we went into the market itself, stepping over a low wooden step padlocked in place presumably to stop motor bicycles or similar entering the narrow aisles between the stalls.

A well-stocked pharmacy inside Katha market

As always, the overriding impression of the market was of the wide range of food and non-food items on offer and the friendliness of the population. Most of the stallholders were women, some accompanied by young children. The walls of a pharmacy stall were lined with wooden cupboards with glazed doors, crammed with remedies in a variety of bottles and packets, presumably mainly traditional.

Rejoining our fleet of trishaws, we started back towards the landing stage but, given the option of walking part of the way, I bailed out and walked down one of the main shopping streets. You see bicycles, motor bicycles, trishaws and tractors but I didn't see a single car. With the threat limited to fairly slow-moving vehicles, I was not too suprised to see three men engaged in an extended conversation in the middle of the street, oblivious to the passing traffic weaving around them.

Back at the riverbank, there was time to look around the outside of the temple and stupas, watch people joining the local ferries with all sorts of luggage and marvel at a rather derelict-looking 'Pandaw'-style boat which appeared to have two side-by-side diesels aft driving two fairly modern 'Z-Drives' from which I guessed she is still at work. Although there was a set of concrete landing steps leading into the river wherewe boarded, these were not in use but were occupied by an elderly woman washing clothes in the murky river water. From the number of bags and plastic containers of washing laid out on the steps above her, she either had a large family or, more likely, was providing a professional laundry service. My pictures around Katha are here.

By 10 o'clock, the two Fast Boats had transferred us all back to 'Road to Mandalay' and the ship set off upstream passing a succession of large and small villages with temples and stupas and friendly residents who frequently stood watching the great white ship as she passed. We passed a series of logging camps where barges were being provided with outriggers to support the heavy logs to be carried away downstream.

A barge provided with outriggers. The network of ropes attached to the booms suspend the logs to be transported just underwater.

At a school we passed, all the pupils were on the river bank cheering and waving, so I assumed they'd benefitted from the RTM charity. My pictures as we sailed north are here.

We enjoyed buffet lunch and later Sammi had arranged a visit to the ship's stainless steel kitchen where twelve people work.

As we continued our cruise, I was introduced to a huge, green praying mantis with a head-neck-body length of about 5 inches. I was told he'd been happily sitting on the ship's rail, hitching a lift, since lunchtime. One of the guides seemed to think it was a grasshopper although I thought it was a mantis (on my return I confirmed it was a mantis, probably Acromantis indica, common name Burmese Mantis). A German passenger taking photographs disturbed the mantis who, to my surprise slowly climbed onto the back of my hand where he seemed quite happy.

Jan makes friends with a green praying mantis.

There are a few more pictures of the mantis here.

Whilst this was going on, we had arrived at Shwe Paw Island and dropped anchor mid-channel. The Yellow Flag Fast Boat had loaded its complement of passengers so I dashed to my room and then to the boat, muttering apologies about having been delayed by a "grasshopper". A short trip by Fast Boat took us to the island and its village of Shwe Paw Kyun.

It seemed a fairly idyllic spot and, at least as far as the first area we walked through, a fairly well-off place. Houses were substantially built of teak, in a rectangular garden with bamboo fences. A series of beaten earth 'roads' thread between the properties. We'd been assured that we'd be welcome to look inside any house we came across - the occupants would see it as an honour that foreigners would want to inspect their abode. This view is so different from the Western belief of a 'home being a castle' that I found it impossible to test the theory. However, after the Guest Lecturer, Pauline, inspected a handsome property, I diffidently approached the girl in the upper storey of the house and, in sign language, confirmed that I was welcome. The girl called herself Mi-Mi and in the dark cool upper room I spotted a picture of her in mortarboard and gown, although she looked too young to have been to university. Further on, San chatted to a dignified lady of 71 who stood at the bamboo gate of her house, with a dog curled up nearby. We passed a woman with a long bamboo pole, knocking coconuts from a tree, then a group of three women, two with young babies, just chatting on a street corner. I never did find out who the three men were who followed us for some time, one talking earnestly into a two-way radio, one with an important-looking sheaf of paperwork. We crossed a creek on a very attractive covered bridge, where a young woman was sitting with her beautiful young daughter. At another very prosperous-looking substantial teak-built villa the owners, a middle-aged couple, came over to talk to San. It appeared that they were the owners of the Fast Boats which we were using. On subsequent days, the man appeared on our Fast Boats. I formed the opinion that it was probably his wife who was the driving force for the business.

Smiling villagers in Shwe Paw Khun

Pictures of the village are here. We carried on towards the island's Primary School, watched by more groups of smiling villagers.

Another presentation of stationery was being made to the pupils at the primary school but, by the time my group arrived, this was virtually completed. However, there was time for photographs of the happy, excited children.

'RTM' passengers visit Shwe Paw school.

Pictures of the school are here.

We made our way back across the island and entered the monastery complex. This is an ancient and revered site as was clear from the multitude of buildings we walked through. We saw the head monk, attended by four elderly monks. I was intrigued by the contrast between the simplicity of their life and the installations of sound equipment necessary to relay the reading of the Buddhist scriptures to the outside world. We passed through the museum where numerous treasures are kept. Outside, we walked alongside lifelike statuary illustrating various Buddhist stories before coming to an area crammed with pagodas of various ages and designs. With perhaps hundreds of close-packed spires pointing skywards, I was reminded of my visit to Kakku on a earlier trip to Burma.

Pagodas at Shwe Paw Monastery.

More pictures of the Monastery are here.

We left the monastery via a long, covered passageway and soon came back to the landing place for our fast boat. However, I was told that the Doctor was holding an impromptu clinic a little further along and I was invited to have a look at that and catch a later Fast Boat back to the ship.

The Clinic held by Doctor Hla Tun on Shwe Paw Island (Photo: RTM)

There is no doctor, nurse or midwife on Shwe Paw island so the impromptu clinic set up by Doctor Hla Tun attracted 19 patients. In the absence of a suitable building, the clinic was set up at the side of the road, with some wooden staging used as an examination couch. The Western concept of privacy appears unknown, so a crowd of villagers watched the consultations in awe. The Doctor treated a series of problems apparently completely unfazed by the conditions, producing meticulous notes on the patients and the remedy prescribed. Oral medicines were dispensed from a carrier bag of assorted treatments but some of the conditions required injections. I watched for a time but, when the departure of a Fast Boat to the ship was announced, I returned to the ship. The Doctor returned later when he'd completed the consultations. My pictures of the Clinic are here.

After dinner on the ship, we were entertained in the Observation Lounge by a group of Shan Dancers. There are a few more pictures here.

[Additional material added 20-Sep-2010, 21-Oct-2010]