The Slow Boat to Nyaung U

The Traveler Awoke Before Dawn

After our adventures in Mandalay, it was time for our travel group to dissipate. Manuel and Alex were branding off to another itinerary and Ethel was leaving me alone to explore the Bagan region on my own. She and I made plans to meet up again in Yangon, and Manuel and Alex and I made plans to contact each other if we were to find ourselves in each other's country.

     Ethel helped me arrange a boat trip from Yangon to Nyaung U. I had my mind set on leaving on a specific day, a day that the "slow boat" was running. I inquired as to the difference between the slow boat and the fast boat, to determine whether I should wait a day for the fast boat, and I was told that I'd save about a dollar or so by taking the slow boat, and that it'd take me an additional three hours. When it came down to a boat ride that would be either 13 or 16 hours what difference did it make?

     I was awakened long before dawn and loaded into the back of our little pickup. Ethel insisted on seeing me off at the shore, so she rode along. The truck stopped in the darkness, adjacent to a small building that stood solitary against a pitch black background, ostensibly the river. In the dizzying haze of pre-dawn, I stumbled around, following Ethel as she told me what to do. I was ushered up a dirt berm towards the building. Inside, the building was lit and fantastically crowded. Families all carrying what appeared to be the entirety of their worldly possessions pushed and shoved towards the ticket booth, while dozens of similar families huddled in lumps on the floor of the building, some miraculously sleeping amid the chaos.

     Ethel barked our way towards the ticket booth where I was ushered past the normal window and into the attendant's room so we could work out the finances. I handed the attendant an American twenty dollar bill; under instructions from Ethel that, similar to hotels boat rides required US dollars. The bill was refused: apparently the millimeter long tear and dog-ear on the bill rendered the bill worthless to the attendant. This was the stupidest policy on Earth; that the Burmese would only accept pristine US bills and I had encountered it before. I pulled out a filthy, ragged kyat bill and showed it to her, suggesting that if they'd accept their own currency in this from that they could surely tolerate a miniscule tear in mine. That strategy had worked in the past, but it wasn't working this time. Ethel told me to get out another bill and I wasn't willing to argue at that hour.

      After paying my fare, Ethel pointed towards a wood plank that seemed to disappear into the darkness. Filing up the plank, between harried families laden with trunks and crates, I followed Ethel's instructions and climbed to the top floor of the boat. It wasn't a large boat, maybe 100 feet long, illuminated sparsely by one or two bare light bulbs on each floor. I had been told that I paid a higher fare and was entitled to a chair. A stack of plastic lawn chairs was the closest thing fitting that description, so I pulled one down and sat upon it. It was an upright chair with no padding; certainly not a luxurious ride. But that said, my accommodations were far fancier than those of the others on the boat. As they boarded, I watched as the families laid out blankets on the wood plank floor, and crouched in mysterious dark lumps.

     In the darkness, I couldn't make out any faces, and the dark shadows shuffling around the boat took on a menacing appearance. I felt like an outsider, watching groups of refugees scrambling for their spot on an illegal boat to freedom. I felt like the shadow people could be dangerous. And I felt somewhat guilty for spending a pittance more for some sort of comfort, when I knew that the dollar it cost me was the tradeoff of a day's worth of meals for a local.

Sunrise on the Ayeyarwaddy River
As the Dawn Began to Break

The boat trip underway, the sun finally began to approach the horizon, illuminating the people around me. When I saw the blue glow of a digital camera's viewfinder being produced from a small bag, I realized that there were a few other travelers on the boat. They snapped a few photos of the sun as it crested the distant hills, and I found some comfort in not being alone among the stirring lumps. I found the courage to sneak a few photos of the sunrise as well.

     Finally, the sun rose enough to illuminate the people sleeping all along the deck of the boat with a pink light, and as they slowly woke and sat upright, they took on a much less menacing appearance. They too, were just people heading west along the Ayeyarwaddy River. And it's not like I was ever afraid of the Burmese at any other time; it was just the eeriness of the dark shadows before dawn. Anyone awake turned dazed eyes toward the east and shared the breathtaking show the sun, sky, river, and hills were performing.

Vendor on the booat

     One such couple, stirring in the increasing light, set to work opening their heavy trunk and shuffling their packages around. They were situated conveniently at the intersection of paths that wound between the huddled groups on the deck. Within a few minutes, several bunches of bananas were hung from the rafters, and tiny plastic stools were overturned to support baskets in which they placed some more fruit and some cakes. Their trunk doubled as a display case and countertop. Yes, this enterprising couple had bought their ticket so they could spend the day vending food on the ship from their own makeshift kwik-e-mart.

     I got up and began to explore the boat. At the bow there was a kitchen, this one appearing to be condoned by the boat company, as it looked to be a more permanent fixture. There were four tall, rickety wood stools in front of a worn wood countertop. Beside the counter, a sink, of sorts, created from a metal pan and supplied by a spigot of dubious origin. A woman stoked a live fire heating a pot of water, inside an oven of third world standards. This would never fly back home in the Litigious States of America where a stray coal was certain to lead to innumerable deaths and subsequent lawsuits.

     Fishermen on hand-carved canoes silently plied the waters of the Ayeyarwaddy, while the boat slowly grumbled along, sending out a lazy wake that would eventually reach their boats, causing their morning's catch to shift from side to side.

     As they shifted their eyes from the sunrise, the families tapped into stacked cylindrical tin lunchboxes, the modern adaptation of bamboo or lacquerware devices that have been carried throughout Southeast Asia since time immemorial.

I'm Crazy Banana Head, Now Give Me Some Money!

     Then, the boat slowed and pulled closer to shore, making the first of what were to be a number of stops along the way towards Bagan. As the boat slowed, a crowd gathered at the shore, from which a man broke towards the boat, and caught a small log thrown from the boat and tied to a length of rope. The log was staked into the ground and a wooden plank was swung out to meet the waiting crowd. There was a certain amount of homogeneity among the folks that crowded to file up the plank. They seemed to carry a similar array of goods upon their heads, primarily bananas and corn.

     Through a disorderly system of pushing and shoving some people got off the boat and the banana-heads got on. It turned out that the food carriers weren't there as passengers but as vendors. They rushed up the stairs and moved from passenger to passenger doing their best to argue that their bananas were better then the next person's and at a better price.

     One sprightly boy of about 8 ran around the boat in the shallow water, waving to get the attention of the handful of Caucasians that had gathered at the railing to glimpse the scene on the shore. He caught my eye and put one finger in the air. One. One what? He then mimed writing with a pen. Ah, tainted by past tourists. His sign language then segued into gestures for candy and then money. He didn't like my sign language, with which I indicated that whatever he was seeking, I wanted one as will, and perhaps he had one for me? He saw my humor but chose instead to make frustrated faces at me rather than play along.

I'm crazy Banana Head, now give me some money!

     In fact, his reaction was somewhat reminiscent of a spoiled child, despite his best efforts to appear quite disadvantaged. This indicated to me that despite the small number of Caucasians on my boat, enough had been through here to give him the impression that he could generally get what he wanted. But alas, I realized, most tourists were willing to pay the extra dollar to take the fast boat and as a result, the fast boat ride is populated solely by tourists, while the slow boat is comprised of all but a few locals.

     I was distracted from the little boy by Crazy Banana Head, a young girl who cleverly stowed her wares upon her head, leaving her hands free for negotiating and doing business. While she was often imitated by the others in her village, in my mind she was the pioneer of this particular technique. She just wore those bananas so well; who else could have started it?!

     Not being a fan of bananas, cold corn, or mottled quail eggs, I passed on the offers during the breakfast stop and wondered if I'd made the wrong move, until we stopped at another village farther up the river. After the banana head stop, it was time for the chicken stop. At this village, two planks were thrown out, allowing an orderly line on and an orderly line off the boat. And a predictably homogeneous array of cooked chickens were brought on board and haggled over. It's hard to tell whether businesspeople in developing countries simply haven't figured out the concept of market saturation (as evidenced by the four Ethiopian restaurants at one intersection in my neighborhood) or whether they simply haven't been inspired to think of a differentiating business model, and rely instead on those they see working for their peers.

     Regardless, commerce with the passengers was complimented by commerce with the villagers. A handful of boats were hitched to the ferry and loaded off gigantic sacks of grain and vegetables.

     The next boat stop was at a sandy bank where several ladies came on board with plants on their heads. Yep, you got it "I'm crazy plant head, now give me some money!" This was a long stop, as the remainder of the giant white sacks were methodically carried off the ship, lugged up the riverbank, and placed into waiting ox carts, which had formed a queue in the sand coming from one side of the lone hut on shore. Once loaded with as many sacks as the oxen could carry, the carts filed along the front of the building and then trotted off toward the sandy horizon.

I like to marvel at the random beauty of a simple village girl

     At the last stop before our final destination, a handful of ladies offering woven blankets came on board. They made offers and tried haggling during the stop, but remained on board after we left the port. Having nothing more to do in the darkness, I entertained myself and the ladies by browsing their wares. It occurred to me that my mother was looking for a new blanket for her couch and that this might make a suitable gift. I looked through all of their blankets, unable to find just the right colors in a reasonable size. Throughout the negotiations, it was clear that one of the ladies was taking a liking to me. She appeared roughly my age, and whenever I wasn't looking would direct her girlfriends to look at me while they whispered and giggled.

I'm crazy Plant Head, now give me some money!

     What was wrong with some harmless flirting? Well, giving her the wrong idea, of course. After convincing me to buy a blanket, she and I got into conversation as best we could, given the language differences. She had a few sisters, one or two of which were on the boat with her, yes she was my age, unmarried, and her family lived in Pakkoku, the village where we picked her up. Apparently saun, the woven blankets, are one of a handful of primary products of Pakokku, and my new friend Sosu's family was comprised of weavers by trade. I thought we'd just cover the my life/your life stuff, but Sosu showed a lot of interest. Too much. She told me about her home and that I should take the morning boat back to Pakokku and visit her and stay with her family. It was a tempting offer; after all, this type of offer ranks among the highest in my personal list of traveling goals, but she just seemed too serious. Like she was going to want to marry me or something. And while that's a very flattering thought, I just wasn't ready for that kind of situation; what with all the turmoil I was putting myself through thinking about my situation back home, not to mention the logistics of it all. Hanukkah at my parents' in Issaquah, Thingyan in Pakokku with her family? With no direct flights? And a mandatory riverboat ride? She was cute, but not that cute. So I made it very clear that it was doubtful that I'd be showing up on her shore with a rose in my mouth the next morning. And as I weighed the implications of getting her hopes up, I decided I wouldn't return to Pakokku.

     Finally, long after dark, we arrived at Nyaung U. There was a predictable melee of trishaw drivers fighting over the handful of tourists that had made the journey. Knowing this scene well as a buyer's market, I worked my way down to a low fare, impressing an Arab tourist in the process. His name was Sa'eed and he asked to split the fare with me to get to the hotels. Fine fine. First stop was something my guide book had prepared me for: a $10 fee for entering the archeological zone. Sa'eed was skeptical, but I explained this was to be expected. We were guided into a small hut to pay. I pulled out the $20 that had been refused that morning at the ferry dock, and the lady took it without question. Meanwhile, Sa'eed offered a $20 in similar condition, only to have it refused. Sa'eed was of very short temper, and after pitching a fit about the stupidity of the perfect-dollar policy, he unzipped his pants to access his money belt. All the while, he was screaming "you want this? You want different money? Well look at this!" and as he reached into his money belt he flashed his penis at the shaken, traumatized girl behind the money box.

     Now, I agreed that the policy was stupid and clearly not enforced with any sort of consistency, but this was going too far. After checking into the hotel, I made it a mission to give Sa'eed the slip so that I could explore the ancient temples in peace.

» Continue to Great Googly Moogly!