Smokey mountains are silhouetted against a hazy background, framing an agricultural tableau of a man heaving along his bull and cart. A child waves from a skeletal shabby blue fishing boat as women wash bright longgyis in the river. Betel-chewing fishermen stare whilst unwrapping rice-noodle white fishing nets. These are the views from the weekend tour of the incredible boat hotel we are staying on, which floats down the Irrawaddy upriver to Mingon or downriver to Sagaing.
The boat is pure Myanmar luxury: garish puppets provide the evening drama, whilst intricately carved teak folding screens ensure privacy for the balconies, allowing us as guests to sit undisturbed and bathed in the golden light of the sun whilst sipping on the pastel pink juices given to us by the ever-attentive waiters. A light breeze eases the intensity of the heat and the steady movement of the boat and soporific hum of the engine lulls me into a soft reverie.
We bite into plump dusty strawberries and feel the sun soaking into our skin, our muscles relaxing into the moment. Dusky blue tourist boats sail chug past us, tourists hanging over the rails, a host of camera’d faces and varnished wooden chairs. Our vessel is a stunning sight, a reproduction of royal barges of old: gleaming gold mythical birds proudly crown the prow of the boat, and huge ivory-coloured elephants flank a pagoda-imitation helm. Behind the elephant guard is a triple layer of golden teak balconies, luxury rooms and an elaborately styled ball-room, in luxurious pink Myanmar drapes and satin backed chairs.
Over the months here I have occasionally needed time away from such incessant saturation of showboating, yearning for some clinical minimalism. Yet on this boat I am persuaded to acknowledge the skill and indeed beauty behind some of these traditional arts, even while wryly noting the obligatory tacky multicoloured flashing lightbulbs festooning the boat at night.
River tours are from 3pm-5pm on weekends, and free for guests but available also for the public for a price. Our room, a lucky bargain on the internet, is a wooden-panelled ‘cosy’ cabin, with little wardrobe space, the ‘24 hour internet’ is temperamental and the nights are noisy with pagoda-chanting and barking dogs: some of the typical Myanmar imperfections I’ve come to only notice through the eyes of others, but this hotel has given us a unique and vividly memorable experience by which to experience a different face of Mandalay on slow-time.
Last night we witnessed the fishermen’s prayer to the River for a good yield of fish as a procession of floating white candles were lain in the river to light the path for the transportation of a new Buddha statue to Yangon. The quiet white lights floated softly and unobtrusively downriver lighting up the inky darkness as I ate my meal of bottle green kailan and smiling straw mushrooms.
We fell asleep cocooned in soft white duvet clouds to the almost imperceptible movement of the soft blue-grey Irrawaddy laying dormant beneath us. I have spent many hours in Mandalay, but now I feel closer to the hum of the river, more understanding of its role in the hard lives of the people here and, as ever, with a heightened gratitude for the advantages of my own life.