January to March 2011 - adrift on the Irrawaddy

The time was right! 

We had long wanted to explore Burma (ok, Myanmar, but old habits etc etc) but in the past had only ventured a short way over the Thai border.

Now that Aung San Suu Kyi was free and the Burmese people were clearly encouraging contact, the way felt clear so, this year, after we had visited our regular sources in Indonesia and Thailand, we flew into the capital, Yangon, for an adventure.

We weren’t disappointed!


Yangon is a scruffy little capital city with a strange atmosphere.  There are NO motorbikes (they are banned); there are NO beggars or shanty-towns (they too are banned); and the residents are quite reticent with foreigners (government spies are everywhere).

Yet it is perhaps the safest city on earth (no-one would dare transgress) and has a cautious friendliness, some fantastic food and is watched over by one of the world’s wonders, a 100m high, 2500 yr-old, stupa (pyramid) covered in gold-plate and diamonds which is visible from almost anywhere in the city.



After a few days exploring the city, enjoying its sights and trying to spot our government "tail" (we identified two for sure!) we decided to head north to one of the least known parts of the country, the Kachin state.  After spending a few days in Mitkyna, a friendly sleepy town on the Irrawaddy River and as far north as foreigners are generally allowed, our plan was to slowly travel south down that famous river on the little boats that the locals use as floating buses.

This took us to tiny villages on the river where we spent the night (in interesting accommodation!) before picking up the next boat in the morning.  As is often the case with our travels, we, and a Parisian opera producer that we met further down the river, were the only foreigners in that part of the country.

 One of the overnight stops was Sinbo, a tiny, picturesque farming village of around 1400 people.

When we landed and climbed up through the village to our lodgings for the night, we could feel an excitement in the air. People seemed to be coming in to the village from surrounding farmsteads and countryside.  We were told that they were preparing for Shinbyu – an initiation ceremony which took place once every few years when young boys (between 3 & 14 years) would become monks, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for years, sometimes for the rest of their lives.  The importance of this tradition is reflected in the Burmese saying,  “You must become a monk, before you can become a man.”  This ceremony would also be the excuse for a rare event when hundreds of families meet up and it was thus an important social occasion for the province.  We decided to miss the boat in the morning and stay awhile!

The ceremony started the next morning in the village monastery. 107 young boys were dressed in dazzling gowns embroidered with gold, stunning homemade headdresses and full make up; in fact, made to look like little princes to the utmost of their parents’ abilities.

The children spent this single day in utter luxury and pleasure, spoiled by their proud parents, friends and family.  We watched colourful processions led by the novices and their families carrying the monastic robes, all in their best silks, followed by dancers and singers. 


A huge feast was prepared. Singing, dancing and partying continued through the night. As the only foreigners present we became part of the entertainment and had a succession of fascinating conversations, fuelled by rice whisky and mutual curiosity, with amazingly well-informed Burmese locals.

Later, in a rather surreal moment, we were woken, on the banks of the Irrawaddy, at 4am to the sound of “the birdie song” in Burmese at full volume! 

Happily, strange and beautiful folk songs were more the norm.


 The village was quiet the next morning. Young novices exchanged their opulent clothes for maroon robes and their heads were shaved. Finally each boy was given  a rice bowl and bedroll (their only possessions whilst monks) and were led away by the monks to study, watched by joyful and tearful  parents.

As the day wore on, the village returned to its slow, peaceful pace as the visitors, including us, said farewell to their wonderful hosts and headed back into the countryside.

We jumped on an even smaller boat and continued on down the Irrawaddy to Mandalay…

….. but on the way, this part of our hunt for treasures was curtailed by the bite from a tick which gave Katia typhus and required that we arrange a tense and tricky evacuation, helped immeasurably by the wonderful people of Burma.

But that’s a different story.  However, we WILL be returning to Burma to continue the adventure!