Monday, 6 September 2010

The Second Defile, Thein Pa Taung Meditation Centre and Bhamo

Sunday 29th August 2010

The short version:

We continued upstream through the Second Defile, passed by Bhamo City (on our right) and reached the limit of our cruise just short of the narrow entrance to the First Defile. The ship turned around and anchored mid-stream. Our Fast Boats transferred us to the Thein Pa Taung Meditation Centre. After our return to the ship, we continued downstream to moor midstream opposite Bhamo's waterfront. At 5.0 p.m. our Fast Boats transferred us to the city for a walking tour around the market and town.

The longer version:

We'd previously negotiated the Third Defile and that hadn't been particularly exciting - the river certainly narrowed but the scenery didn't seem that different from further downstream. So we were intrigued as to what the Second Defile would bring. At first, we passed a number of isolated farms and small villages, with most of the inhabitants watching the great white ship as it passed. We spotted an elephant slowly emerging from a pool near a group of houses. Presumably the elephant had been to the pool for washing. As I discovered during my encounter with elephants in Thailand (see 'Elephant Camp'), elephants are fastidious creatures and regular bathing is important.

We pass riverside houses with an elephant in the background and the plain gives way to wooded mountains.

The river narrowed further and the ground rose up on either side, heavily wooded and presenting rocky cliffs. In places, the water became quite turbulent. I found it reminiscent of my cruise on the Mekong through Laos (see 'Into Laos'). Most of the passengers were out on deck, many on the open bridge.

We'd been told about a feature in the rock wall called "The Parrot's Beak" so we were all on the lookout for that.

The Parrot's Beak.

Fortunately, the rock in question had been helpfully painted green for the plumage with a red beak and black and white eyes, otherwise I think we would have missed it because it was only a few feet across, just above the water.

The Second Defile has steep, wooded cliffs which reminded me of the Mekong in Laos

Eventually, the river widened and the mountains receded, leaving a fertile plain encouraging a number of larger villages. We passed our destination, Bhamo, and continued almost to the start of the First Defile. Looking ahead, we could see the wooded hills closing in on a much narrower river. But this was as far upstream as we could go, so the Captain turned the ship and we glided downstream. Pictures of our journey upstream are here.

I'd spotted our Fast Boats moored at the bank so, around 2.00 p.m., we went through the by-now familiar routine of being transferred ashore. The Thein Pa Taung Meditation Centre is situated on a wooded hillside and a long set of concrete steps led up from the landing place. It was very hot so the sections of the steps provided with a roof were very welcome. As we entered the main compound I was distracted by the generator house and made a very brief inspection.

The building contained two diesel engines, each driving a generator through a belt. The Chinese single-cylinder diesel engine is found everywhere in Myanmar, driving boats and trucks. I afterwards identified the engines as type ZS1115 made by Yingtian in Jiangsu, China. This single-cylinder 4-stroke diesel is intended for boats. With a 115mm bore and 115 stroke, it's rated at 16kW shaft power.

There were a number of buildings where students practice meditation.

Students practising meditation in one of the large dormitories.

We saw nuns meditating in relatively private spaces but most students were in large dormitory-style buildings, one for ladies, one for men. Provided we remained quiet, we were allowed to look in on these rooms. We also climbed to the shrine at the summit of the hill which commanded splendid view of the river below.

The spirituality of places like the Meditation Centre doesn't come out in a bald description of what we did but the beliefs of the Burmese makes even visiting a place like this quite an experience. After we'd walked round the site, the RTM people had (as usual) arranged a refreshment stop with cold drinks and fruit on the steps of one of the temples. Then I noticed the Doctor and a group of nuns sitting on the floor in another open-sided building so I walked over and he invited me to sit with them.

The Doctor had just finished a consultation with the Head Nun, a dignified but friendly person in her 70's who was now suffering from back pain. The Doctor had administered one injection and intended to give a second on his next (and final) visit of the year. Three younger Nuns were in attendance and, although I couldn't converse with them, we all shared the humour of the situation. A kitten wandered in and lay down beside me while I stroked it and we found that very funny, too. Eventually, the Doctor and I got up to leave and one of the younger Nuns presented me with four bananas, scurrying off to find a plastic bag to carry them.

Pictures of the Meditation Centre are here.

We all rejoined the two Fast Boats but the 'Mother Ship' had gone! The Captain had already taken 'Road to Mandalay' downstream to Bhamo, turned to face upstream, and anchored mid-channel. So the Fast Boats took us downstream to board the ship. There was time for refreshments on the Observation Lounge but not much more, for at 5.00 p.m. the Fast Boats were to take us ashore for a walking tour of Bhamo.

The riverfront had a variety of craft berthed at various landing places. We disembarked at a set of concrete steps, watched by a number of friendly locals. At the top of the steps, a dual-carriageway ran parallel to the river with traditional teak buildings on the landward side. I didn't at first realise it was a dual-carriageway because the roadway nearer the river seemed to be used mainly for parking or for pedestrians either walking or just standing talking. But, occasionally, vehicles would pass, patiently waiting for people to move out of the way.

Bhamo is the largest town in the area, a staging point on the main northern trade route with China. Goods are imported from and exported to China by road and then the river provides good communication with the rest of Myanmar. Architecture is a mixture of the traditional and modern. Most of the modern buildings are owned by Chinese.

Our walking tour took us away from the river and I was quite shocked by the amount of traffic - mainly motor bicycles but with a fair number of small trucks, pick-ups and a few private cars. I'd become unused to this amount of traffic in the days since boarding at Mandalay! We passed pavement sellers with large displays of vegetables and numerous shops, including the first opticians I'd seen in Burma. The Fire Station appeared to be still using a couple of Japanese fire appliances dating from the second World War. The three-storey KBZ Bank building looked very prosperous. Kanbawza Bank Limited is a Myanmar bank owned by 'a close business associate' of government officials. On the pavement outside the bank was a top-of-the-range Caterpillar-built 'Olympian' 50kW packaged diesel standby generator. I was reminded of the rather more basic installation at the Meditation Centre.

Our tour finished at a large monastery complex dominated by a large golden pagoda. By the time I'd made a quick tour around some of the buildings on the site, I was happy to accept Mr. Win's suggestion of a lift back in one of the larger motor rickshaws. We stopped for complimentary drinks at tables outside a modern building facing the river then we walked the final few hundred yards back to the landing place. The Fast Boats transferred us back to 'Road to Mandalay' at anchor just as it became dark. Then it was dinner and bed so as to be refreshed for the next day's adventures.

My pictures of Bhamo are here.

[Amended 12-Oct-2010, 21-Oct-2010].