Thursday 18 August 2022

The only shiny things in the loo were the cockroaches

While the planet either burns up or gets washed away, depending on which bit of it you're living on, it's nice to look back - way back - to gentler times. I'm currently writing about river cruises in Europe, on the Rhone, Rhine, Seine and Danube, and trying to rank them. Impossible, of course. They have lots in common, and each has its particular delights, so you really can't go wrong.

I wrote here a wee while ago that my first cruise was in Fiji - but it wasn't at all, I now remember. Leaving aside, for obvious reasons, my voyages between NZ and the UK back in 1957, the first time I travelled anywhere on a boat - apart from the Interislander ferry here - was in 1980, on the Irrawaddy in Burma/Myanmar. 

It was part of the Big Trip, back to England from NZ in 1980, and we started the cruise at Mandalay. We'd got there from Rangoon/Yangon on a battered old Fokker full of odd seats, and spent the day exploring what was then a quiet, sprawling city full of trishaws, pony carts and freely grazing cattle and sheep. We wandered around the grounds of the palace, encountering a snake and lots of lizards, and climbed, bare-footed as per custom, up the 1729 steps to the top of Mandalay Hill. Tourism was still a novelty then, and so were we, to the locals - only fair, really, though it got a bit tiring having people constantly offering to buy my watch, and asking if I had pens, cosmetics or clothes to sell.

We visited the big and beautiful pagoda, went to a market to buy mosquito coils - not the simple transaction you might expect - and then visited Amarapura, including temples, innumerable Buddhas, various handicraft workshops, and U Bein's picturesque bridge.

The ferry to Pagan/Bagan left that night, and we were really taken aback by what we'd let ourselves in for: lower deck packed with baskets of produce, upper deck like a scene from Exodus - not an inch of free space, people crammed in everywhere. Even our little "first-class" bow cabin had only four bare wooden bunks and a toilet heaving with cockroaches.

We and an Italian couple spent the night easing from one aching hip to another, woken at 4am when two more couples - German and American - came into the cabin, and the boat finally set off with loud shrieking from the hooter above our cabin. The others slept lay on the floor and table. 

The following day was a repeated pattern of gliding slowly down the super-wide, shallow river, periodically easing sideways to the bank to put ashore/take on passengers. Snack sellers came on board too, but we restricted ourselves to bananas and mangoes - oddly, not tempted by the fried grasshoppers wrapped in leaves so popular with the locals. A monk came on board at one stage and was seated in our cabin with great reverence.

The boat eventually stopped for the night well upstream of where we'd expected to go ashore, but with the help of a Burmese teacher on board who spoke English, six of us tourists splashed out on hiring a private boat for the exorbitant sum of $55. We were taken to it through the village on a pony cart, and caused a sensation, hordes of kids rushing up to shake our hands. After a 90 minute cruise further down the river, we came ashore again, got into another cart, drawn by a bad-tempered pony who had thought his working day was over, and crept through Pagan's moonlit temples to, finally, a lodging with a proper bed.

Uniworld, it definitely wasn't. But memorable, for sure... (Read more here.)

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