The Book

On the Road to Mandalay

It was time to move on, up north, by boat to fabled Mandalay. I had chosen the much slower upriver trip because the information I had at the time I planned the trip suggested that no boat of the right size would be available for a downriver trip on the appropriate date. Actually, several boats depart going in both directions on most days of the week, but to this day I have not found any Burmese travel agent who can give me complete information about boat departures from Bagan. I had already excluded going north by train, bus, or airplane; I wanted the perfect combination of spending time on a boat and experiencing the famous Ayeyarwady River. Time did not matter; I was not in a hurry. In Bagan, I found out that I had a choice of three boats. First, there was the ultimate luxury, an expensive passage on the Road to Mandalay, run by the Orient Express Company, which also runs the exclusive Orient Express train between Singapore and Bangkok. (The Road to Mandalay used to be a Rhine riverboat, the MS Nederland, owned by the Koeln-Duesseldorfer Shipping Line, which runs pleasure cruises on the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Then, after the reunification of Germany, it became a floating hotel in the East German city of Dresden; after an extensive renovation in Papenburg and Hamburg, it went piggyback on a large vessel from Hamburg to Yangon.)

The other two alternatives were the older Myanmar-built Irrawaddy Princess (a big, slow boat) and the very fast Chinese-built Shwe Kennery, which did not have cabins and which, on its way north, stops overnight in the town of Pakokku, where guest houses may or may not be available. I was later told that there were two more boats, but could not find out their names and schedules. The prices were US $1,700 for the Mandalay, US $150 for the Princess, and around US $20 for the Kennery. The Princess seemed just right for me, not too fast and not too luxurious, but still with cabins and meal service. This boat would get me, in Kipling's words, "On the Road to Mandalay."


When I arrived at the jetty early next morning, the Princess was already there-a large catamaran with twenty-seven cabins. I selected a cabin on the port side because it would be more shaded in the hot midday sun. It was a small cabin, with an outside light that had been left on all night, which had attracted dozens of little bugs that had found their way into the cabin and then died. They covered the bed. I considered myself fortunate to have some cute and useful cabin companions-several geckos that would feast on any remaining and future insects. The cabin was equipped with air-conditioning and a wonderful high-pressure shower that would bring me back to life after my long naps. In typical fashion though, the showerhead hung from the center of the ceiling and, given the absence of shower curtains, the whole room would flood every time I took a bath.

Princess was an impressive boat, at least from the outside, but inside it looked a little tired and worn, and I guessed it was some twenty years old. But I was way off-it had been commissioned in 1994 and was therefore only four years old. Nevertheless, the boat turned out to be comfortable and quiet and it had an ambiance of times past. I fell in love with the Princess, especially because I had it almost completely to myself. Only one other party boarded with me at Bagan-an older Burmese couple and their dutiful adult son, who was taking his parents on a vacation trip to Mandalay. A crew of twenty-three men, a friendly and polite staff, took care of the four of us. Some of the staff (the purser, his assistant, and the second mate) spoke some English.

At the bow, just below the bridge, was an air-conditioned "salon" with heavy armchairs, a grand view of the river, a little bar area, and a large TV that broadcast two channels, one controlled by the military and a foreign channel, CNN. With the exception of some pleasant traditional Burmese soungko (Burmese harp) music, the only other tapes played on the stereo system were raucous disco music. (The soungko is the instrument that served as the main thread of the plot in Michio Takeyama's The Harp of Burma, the initially controversial and later internationally acclaimed novel, and movie, about a Japanese soldier in Burma who, after having witnessed the tragedies and atrocities of World War II, became a Buddhist monk and decided to remain in Burma even after the war was over.) The salon also contained reading materials-old magazines all in Dutch. And the bar had some good domestic beer and a French white wine that had turned amber in the tropical heat. It had probably been around long enough to taste like Madeira by this time. The dining room, a simple room, was definitely the hottest place on the boat, but it came with all the etiquette one would expect of an ocean liner. Each day, a sheet of paper posted outside on the bulletin board would tell us, for example, that today's lunch would be

Lentil soup
Rice cabbage
Pork with diced cucumber

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