It was finally time to get off the well-worn tourist trail. The usual itinerary for a visit to Myanmar covers the two major cities (Mandalay and Yangon) along with side trips to Inle Lake and Old Bagan. These are all south of Mandalay – so, of course, I bought a train ticket north!
Although I left Mandalay as a solo traveler, long train rides are a great way to accumulate friends. Since I apparently don’t know how to read train tickets I was sitting in the wrong seat before the train left – luckily it belonged to Vivian! We started swapping travel stories and quickly realised that we were both chasing some of the same sorts of adventures. Vivian was excited by my hitchhiking plan and decided to join me on a whim, getting off the train 8 hours ahead of her scheduled stop – this type of spontaneous decision making and the freedom to change plans is highly underrated and one of the key aspects of backpacking that I love so much. When I did find my actual cabin on the train Alex, a friend I’d made several days earlier in Hsipaw, was coincidentally going to be sharing it with me, along with a local couple.
The three of us found the guesthouse (Ayeyarwady Guesthouse) that I had scoped out earlier and each checked-in. Although the 12 hr train ride to Nabar and 1 hr taxi truck to Katha had tired us out, it was Alex’s birthday so we went out for some fruit (and betel nut for me).
We then decided to pick a boat at random that was docked on the riverside and see where it took us.
It turned out to be just a ferry to other side of river. At Alex’s insistence we had a celebratory beer and cigar. Despite being fairly quiet and keeping to ourselves we were attracting quite a bit of attention as the only foreigners anywhere near this remote ferry dock. One excitable gent asked us all to dance with him and then seemed to ask if I knew how to box, while pounding his fist on the table to indicate that only bare-knuckle boxing would be acceptable. He was probably 165cm (5’ 5”) and 50kg (110lbs), half my weight, but those betel nut teeth have a great effect on intimidation levels! He turned out to be harmless and left us alone after we declined to dance (in any way) but that was a strange experience… I also met a soldier (another smaller guy) from Myanmar’s Army who was adamant I needed multiple pictures with him in his various uniforms. I wasn’t really in a position to disagree.
Khata is notable for being the town where George Orwell was posted for 5 years as a police officer. He wrote his first novel, “Burmese Days”, drawing heavily on his experiences there. The next morning we set out in search of some of the locations that are described in the book (I’d read it several months prior and Vivian was in the process of reading it). It was a bit of a mad dash trying to find these hidden buildings and make it back in time for our eastbound boat but somehow we ticked off the big ones!
The funniest experience was when we got to the “Deputy Commissioner’s House”. The gate was locked but after a little wandering around and asking we were unceremoniously handed the keys to the house and the gate was unlocked for us. We walked up to the house and I got to unlock it myself for our own private tour of the building. They seem to be slowly turning it into a tourist attraction, with many descriptive panels detailing Orwell’s life and service in Burma, as well as a map that showed other sites from the novel (which we took pictures of for future reference). I then handed the key back to a different man who had just rolled up on his scooter and we were on our way – I hope it ended up in the right hands!
Vivian and I rushed to make our boat that was heading to Bhamo while Alex stayed behind in Katha for a few more days. This 9hr ride upriver was a relaxing way to spend the day. The locals gambled, drank whiskey, drank the river water (yuck!), and ate A LOT of corn.
It was interesting to see how commuters could join our boat if they weren’t close enough to a spot that we would actually dock at. They’d have to get a longboat to come out from the banks into the deeper waters at the middle of the river. Having matched speed with our large boat, they’d toss their bags and other belongings onboard before climbing on themselves. The longboat would then peel off and head back to shore, not slowing us down at all!
We had a great, eventful day in Bhamo. We walked (taking the long route due to some dodgy navigation, sorry Vivian) to the well-known Bamboo Bridge. It must be rebuilt each year after the rainy season and was a nice excursion for us in a town with not much else going on. Our first hitchhike attempt worked like a charm with a nice Hilux taking us straight back to town – this is going to be easy, right?
Adding some extra cheer to our day was a chance encounter we had with a schoolgirl named Alla. As we were stopped at a street stall enquiring about hats, Alla came running out of her house and then invited us inside to show us around, give us some peanuts and even did Vivian’s Thanaka (Burmese makeup made of ground bark). She then took us for a walk to her family’s lychee grove and stopped to worship briefly at a nat (spirit) shrine. Her siblings and cousins (and family dog!) all came along for the walk. When we got back her father had returned home. He is the local English teacher and was happy to see his daughter speaking so comfortably with foreigners. We could not have planned for a nicer, more genuine insight into local life. Thanks Alla!
Next up – hitchhiking the Red Zone!