|Afloat in Myanmar|
Part 4: Bagan is in many respects the most remarkable religious city in the world.
By C. Lincoln Jewett — November 2002
Our second nautical adventure in Myanmar is a 15-hour cruise on an elderly, paint-flecked, 100-foot cargo and passenger vessel on the Irrawaddy River. We remember Rudyard Kipling’s poem and song “On The Road to Mandalay.” (He took poetic license—there are no flying fishes or thunderous dawns on the river.) We board before sunrise, berthed next to an even more elderly vessel crammed with natives and their bedrolls, furniture, chickens, goats, and cages of exotic birds. Traveling at about 12 mph downstream, 7 mph upstream, we vividly see how the Irrawaddy is Myanmar’s artery of agriculture, transportation, and commerce.
Maneuvering around us are teeming flows of a heterogeneous craft desperately in need of fresh paint and mostly of odd designs. These include antiquated diesel ferries, teak sampans, thin wooden longboats with bulk cargo, log canoes, chugging tugs, half-acre rafts of logs, lugger-rigged sailboats tacking upriver, and rusty barges stacked with gravel, vegetables, machinery, or humanity. Along the meandering river we admire sporadic clusters of pristine-white Buddhist temples with radiant gold steeples. Loading or unloading cargo and people is done by running the boats onto the muddy riverbank. Adding to the bustle, children wade out up to their necks, hawking cakes, fruit, shawls, and baseball caps. From our vessel we edge our way across a wiggly, two-foot-wide plank. Fortunately, we never tumble into the chocolate-brown water or ankle-deep mud.
Ashore at Bagan, our eyes bulge at a panorama that outrivals our first sights of the Egyptian pyramids and Angkor Wat. In 1882 Sir James Scott eloquently portrayed the scene: “Bagan is in many respects the most remarkable religious city in the world. Jerusalem, Rome, Kiev, Benares [Taj Mahal], none of these can boast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament that make marvelous the deserted capital on the Irrawaddy.”
According to history, between 1057 and when Bagan was overrun by Kublai Khan in 1287, some 13,000 temples, pagodas, and other religious structures were built on this vast plain. After eight centuries, some 2,200 of these partly conical, redbrick, and carved-stone edifices are still standing. It’s as if all the ancient cathedrals of Europe were built in one spot.
In striking contrast, at a modest modern yacht club much like ones in the United States on a lake in the capital Yangon—once called Rangoon—we watch sailing races among 14-foot Lasers and tiny Optimists.
It’s a fitting end to our adventure. We’ve been enchanted by the country and the people, who manage to be genuinely friendly despite a rigid, Cuba-like military regime. Well aware of how few American boaters have been fortunate enough to voyage here, we say good-bye and dream of returning.
C. Lincoln Jewett is a boater who enjoys traveling worldwide and lives in Darien, Connecticut.
This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.