Friday 27th August 2010
Unusually, I woke up two or three times in the night, finally getting up just before six. Shortly afterwards, the ship set off upstream. I took breakfast on the Top Deck around 6.30 a.m. so as to be ready in good time for our trip ashore. When we arrived at Kya Hnyat, the ship anchored mid-channel and we could see a traditional village on the right bank.
Our two Fast Boats had been moored at the river bank by the village and soon they rendezvoused with our ship. The Yellow Flag Fast Boat tied up to the ship and the usual arrangements were made for transferring passengers. At 7.25 a.m., all the Yellow Group passengers (including me) had boarded and we made the short journey to the village, allowing the Green Flag Fast Boat to tie-up to the ship and pick up the Green Group passengers.
Mr. Win, my group's guide, led us up the steep path from the shore and we were immediately immersed in village life. Men, women and children were everywhere, usually initially staring at the apparition of Westerners who had suddenly appeared in their midst. A combination of "Mingale Ba" (Good Morning), a smile or slight doffing of the head on our part elicited a broad smile with all but the most shy.
We walked through the market area where decrepit wooden stalls were arranged to leave narrow paths of hard earth forming a square grid. The range of vegetables, fruit, fish and meat was remarkable but the standards of cleanliness would have induced an immediate heart attack in a European health inspector. As Mr. Win identified the different foods and described the method of preparation and the health benefits (obesity and heart problems are allegedly rare) we garnered lots of smiles from the locals. Dogs and cats wandered between the stalls unmolested.
The stallholders each had a simple 2-pan balance for weighing the food but there were very few balance weights. Then I realised that they each had a collection of (presumably spent) dry cell batteries, size 'A' or smaller, which were being used as balance weights. Sight of this would presumably have seen off any European Weights and Measures inspector!
The population of the village was supposed to be around 1,000 and it seemed that all of them were in the market. Of course, many of the people we saw would have come in from surrounding villages by bullock cart, Chinese-made motor cycle or on foot.
The side of the market away from the river bank extended along one side of the 'main street' of beaten earth. Here we found non-food businesses like Tea Shops, public telephone shop (where you pay the proprietor to use a telephone) and hardware shops. The ubiquitous Chinese-made motor cycles, usually with three people on board, somehow managed to thread their way through the pedestrians without accident. We came to a white-painted Stupa with a number of bullock carts standing outside. A game of handball had just finished and the young men players wandered off in various directions. Next, we came to a modern brick clock tower. The usefulness of the clock was somewhat limited by its having no fingers. Just beyond the clock tower, there was a large open-sided assembly hall and the high-pitched hubbub indicated that there were already a number of young children inside.
I wasn't prepared for the number of children sitting on the floor - after the stragglers arrived, there must have been around 1,000 young pupils. The Doctor was at the front of the assembly, standing by a table loaded with 500 ruled exercise books and a similar number of pencils with erasers. At 8.39 a.m., the stern-faced male teacher called for quiet and then had the children sing (unaccompanied and surprisingly tunefully) three songs.They then recited a prayer of thanks to the donors.
Some of the RTM Guests were then issued with a stack of exercise books and a bundle of pencils and told to pass among the seated children distributing one book and one pencil to each child. There was not much space to work through the crowd and only having 500 books meant that many children would be disappointed. The Doctor was surprised at the number of children attending since over 500 books and pencils had been distributed on the previous Bhamo cruise.
I'm afraid that in the excitement of the moment, discipline rather broke down. I became mobbed by chilren and surrounded by grasping hands. Clearly, the larger children had an advantage in trying to obtain a gift. I deployed my best school-ma'am voice in an attempt to dissuade the bigger chilren from intercepting items intended for younger chilren but I'm sorry to say that even the sternest of warnings in English failed to achieve a very satisfactory result.
After a few minutes, all the available books and pens had been issued but the Doctor had a few packets of wrapped sweets which we quickly issued to a different part of the crowd. Peace returned as the teacher dismissed the children at 8.50 a.m. to go to their indivual schoolrooms.
Somewhat shell-shocked, we continued our walking tour of the village, stopping first at a small, wooden doctor's surgery which has recently opened. The twenty-five year old doctor said that he normally treated about ten patients every day. The most common problems, he explained, were influenza and malaria.
On a dusty street corner, a woman was selling Thanaka in the form of small logs. We soon gathered a small, friendly crowd as Mr. Win explained the use of Thanaka. We continued through a residential area where dogs, cats and rather scrawny Burmese chickens roamed free. We passed a barber's shop (a simple wooden open-fronted gabled construction equipped with table, mirror and chair leaving the barber and customer in full view. After passing another hardware store filled with intriguing items the purpose of which could only be guessed at, we made our way back through the market and boarded the waiting Fast Boats.
Whilst we'd been in the village, our ship had weighed anchor and was already proceeding upstream so it was necessary for us to match motion with the ship before coming alongside. The Captain later explained that, in such strong current, he cannot hold the ships position accurately without putting down the anchors so ship normally makes around 8 knots whilst, one after the other, the Fast Boats tie-up alongside. It's quite exciting to watch the vessels come together but once the process is complete, it's perfectly safe and simple for the passengers to transfer. As the Captain said, a good example of Einstein's Relativity.
The rest of the day was spent more quietly on the ship as we passed through the Third Defile towards Katha. I was intrigued by the sudden appearance of a fairly large industrial zone on the East Bank. The Captain identified a working sugar-processing plant and nickel factory under construction but I could see fractionating columns at another plant and, in the distance, two tall chimneys, one long 3 or 4 storey building with windows and two multistorey apartment blocks. Two tower cranes were still at work on this Chinese-financed major development.
The scene became more rural again. The inundation of the low-lying land on our left meant that a number of the smallholdings we passed had temporarily become islands.
Later, on our left, we passed quite a large town which straggled along the river bank for some distance, the area liberally sprinkled with gold pagodas. One large passenger ferry was moored at the town's landing stage.
We cruised fairly close to the left bank of the wide river so we had a good view of the various villages we passed with the wooden houses built on stilts to cater for very high water. The passage of 'Road to Mandalay' is quite an event and villages lined the bank to wave as we passed. The passengers were similarly lined against the ship's rail, reciprocating the friendly greeting. The countryside was getting distinctly more 'jungly' and, in the distance, mountains could be seen.
This is logging country and we passed one large loading point extending over a few acres filled with hardwood logs and provided with a series of cranes at the waterside to load the barges which carry the timber downstream. The barges are provided with outrigger booms formed from suitable hardwood logs on both sides of the hull. The booms are terminated in bundles of bamboo to provide buoyancy. The heavy logs to be transported are then suspended by rope from from the booms.
At 4.30 p.m. the Guest Lecturer gave an interesting lecture on Buddhist Art and its interpretation.
Around 6.30 p.m. we moored for the night mid-channel, a few miles south of Katha, just as it started to rain. Whilst we were having dinner, the rain intensified and the proposed release of Shan Fire Balloons had to be deferred.
Pictures of Kya Hnyat Village are here.
Pictures of Kya Hnyat School are currently missing, sorry.
Pictures sailing north to Katha are here.