The river to Bagan

Ferry to Bagan Myanmar
Passengers preparing to board the crammed ferry

The boat blew it’s fog horn for the second time. Boooooooooooohhhhm. I swallowed my second valium. We had taken a sixteen hour bus and I had not yet slept, it was five in the morning and we had just boarded a boat bound for Bagan. It was due to take at least fourteen hours. Suddenly the hard wooden floor didn’t seem so uncomfortable. I had just about enough time to rest my head on my pack before I fell into a deep sleep. I dreamt of a shifting sea of people and awoke. The deck was crowded with Myanman families sleeping, chatting and smoking. A group of elderly monks sipped tea in a corner. It was eight in the morning. I slept again. I dreamt of weird noises, swirling mermaids and backgammon. When I finally awoke, my travelling companion Marie was happily getting her ass handed to her at backgammon by a flamboyant Australian with lightning blue mermen on his arms. Slowly I sat up and took in the scene around me. I estimated there was at least two hundred Myanmans on the boat. There was also about ten backpackers. Sprawled at my feet was a guy in a floral shirt. Across from me the Merman’s equally flamboyant boyfriend was reading a dog eared copy of Orwell’s ‘Burmese Day’s’.

A dumpy Frenchwomen  somewhat resembling a small wardrobe, sat apart from us, deeply engrossed in what appeared to be my copy of the lonely planet. A few feet from my face a curly haired man smiled shyly at me before thrusting his hand forward. “How ya goin mate, the name’s Craig” he said. Grasping his hand, as much for support as for greeting, I stumbled over floral shirt and stared across the rail of the boat. Craig followed me doggedly and tried again to engage me in conversation, “my friends call me ‘Craig the Jew’ as I’m Jewish and my names Craig” he offered casually. Wiping my brow I apologised for still being half asleep and insisted I was normally a bit more switched on. This was followed by a short pause in which Craig looked at me doubtfully before breaking into a wide grin. “No worries mate, I’ll take you word for it” he chuckled before offering me a cookie. The French wardrobe stomped over and ate three of Craig’s cookies whilst flipping through my guidebook. “Excusa moi,” said I in my best French, “is that my guidebook?” She stared at me blankly before confirming that yes, indeed, it was my guidebook and wandering away with it still clutched firmly under one of her formidable looking arms. I glowered at her and fantasized about drowning wardrobes. Marie saw the look on my face and quickly provided a bag of juicy mangoes. She shared them out amongst me, Craig the Jew, the flamboyant merman and floral shirt, who had just woken up. Floral shirt looked about him slowly before lighting a cigarette, biting a mango, spitting over the side of the boat and then instantly falling asleep again. The identity of floral shirt was to remain a mystery for some time.

As the effects of Valium wore off I was better able to chat with Craig the Jew and even challenged the merman to a game of backgammon. He was blindingly good and thrashed me pretty quickly despite the number of fish jokes I threw in his general direction. He didn’t seem to get where I was coming from or perhaps they just weren’t funny. Actually I am certain they weren’t funny. The wardrobe watched our game with interest but refused to meet my eye and secretly I feared she had eaten my lonely planet. Whilst I was fantasising about tying a chain around her thick middle and employing her as an anchor I was startled to notice that floral shirt had disappeared. Just minutes before he had been happily sprawled across the deck like a very colourful rug and suddenly he was nowhere to be found. I felt that the boat was now missing it’s only piece of furniture and was significantly happier when I spotted him lolling in a chair a few meters away. How he made the transition from the floor to the chair I do not know but he was still very much asleep. I considered watering him to see if he would become even more colourful but decided against it, stupidly I only had half a liter of water for the entire journey and as I don’t buy plastic bottles in third world countries was unable to get more.

Harbour in River to BaganThe horn blew for the hundredth time and our boat pulled into a makeshift dirt harbour crowded with a few dozen villagers and some bullock carts. Within seconds a gangplank was thrown down and locals swarmed off the boat in droves. Most carried heavy loads on their heads and some even balanced sacks of cement across their shoulders whilst balancing precariously on the rickety wooden plank. A diminutive Buddhist monk with a red umbrella took over the proceedings and ordered the crew to unload half a dozen huge blue barrels. The crew was confused. The monk alternated between jabbing the huge blue barrels and the crew with his umbrella whilst shouting excitedly. The crew consisted of two half naked boys and an older man wearing a bright purple lunghi who appeared to be in charge. When faced with the current obstacle the man looked thoughtful for a couple of minutes before abruptly yelling at the boys and gesticulating wildly. To my amazement the crew then placed the heavy plastic barrels on the edge of the boat and employed the Donkey Kong technique of rolling them down the plank at breakneck speed so that five out of six barrels ended up in the river. The monk nimbly dodged the sixth barrel before cursing at the clumsy crew and gathering a retrieval posse of villagers who happily waded into the muddied waters whilst our backpacker crew cheered them on enthusiastically. The wardrobe, who was more interested in stocking up on fried chicken, remained blissfully absent from the celebrations. She still had my lonely planet.

A few more hours, in which floral shirt remained very much comatose, pMonk in Bagan Myanmarassed before we began to see signs of our destination. Small clusters of pagodas and minor temples began to break through the vegetation guarding the river bank with increased regularity. Before long the entire bank was crowded with crumbling spires and rounded domes. In the distance I could just make out silhouettes belonging to some much larger temples framed against the sunset. Without warning we arrived at the port and, grabbing our rucksacks, scrambled off the boat into a fray of horse wagon drivers who vied greedily for our patronage. We said a hurried goodbye to the merman and Craig the Jew before jumping atop the nearest wagon and trundling towards town. As we left the port I caught one last glimpse of floral shirt, he was positioned bolt upright in the seat of a cycle rickshaw. He was fast asleep. It suddenly occurred to me that floral shirt might actually be dead.

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