Down the Irrawaddy River on a Chinese Steamer

Down the Irrawaddy River on an old Chinese Steamer

I was traveling on a 50 year old Chinese steamer down the Irrawaddy River in Burma. It was a three day trip on this local steamer because it stopped at every village along the way. I was the only westerner on the boat. And I was the only westerner that some of the passengers had ever seen. Young children burst into tears at the mere sight of me. Which caused the parents to smile and laugh at their children’s discomfort and to assure me that they were fine with my being there. No one has a beard in Burma and I must have looked pretty scary.

I had no idea what to expect when I climbed up the one wooden plank to board the ship. I had paid for a cabin and it turned out that I was the only person staying in one. Everyone else quickly marked off their place on one of the three decks. As I walked past this colorful mass of people, many people called to me to join them, and started to make room for me to put down my blanket. I smiled and thanked them, but, I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. At least not right away. So I went past a bunch of unoccupied cabins to find mine. It was a metal box with two metal beds attached to the wall with space between them, a sink, a window and one bare light bulb in the ceiling. Well it was quiet. The bathroom, I found out, was a big common room with a trough on one side and several holes in the floor. Right out in the open. And it was at the stern of the ship.

The first day we slid down the river like a dream. Dotted along the banks were beautiful gold and white temples. Every village had it’s own pagoda. Sometimes just the top of a golden spire was visible poking up through the palm trees. The new passengers were huddled in a colorful mass at the edge of the beach, with there bundles, and bags of vegetables, and chickens. The steamer would just plow into the sand beach and put down a single plank and they would scurry aboard in a big hurry to get their spaces marked out.

I spent the first day standing by the rail and watched the countryside slip by. I was anxious to take pictures, but, I was afraid of insulting the passengers. So, I just had the camera with me. Pretty soon some family would smile at me and indicate that they would like me to take a picture of them. Gradually they excepted me and my camera and when I pointed my camera at the them, everyone would smile.

I discovered there was no dining room. Everyone brought their own food. I had brought three packages of Ramon Noodles which is almost all I ate. Their were faucets of boiling water which is how I made my soup. I was often offered food by the passengers, but, I always politely refused. I was afraid of getting sick. But, I did except one egg and a banana. I thought they would be safe.

As the day wained the steamer prepared for the coming night. I found out that because of all the sand bars the ship didn’t run at night. What they did was ram the steamer into the beach and a crew member would scramble off the bow with a rope and drag it up into the jungle and tie us to a tree. Then as the evening darkened other ships, attracted by our bright lights would maneuver next to us and tie the boats together. In about an hour we had five other ships hooked on. The bright lights attracted a plethora of moths. They were every where. But, all of a sudden the lights went out. My cabin was black.

I walked back to the deck and was amazed to see little cooking fires, like fireflies, all across the deck.

There was an excitement in the air. A din of conversation chirped through the night. After dinner and clean up. Everyone began singing the most haunting melody. These were Buddhist prayers that everyone knew. It was beautiful beyond description.

Khong Island, Laos

Khong Island, Laos
Khong Island, Laos
Khong Island, Laos
Khong Island

Also known as Don Khong, Khong Island is located right in the south of Laos near the Cambodian border. Part of the 4000 islands that comprise the Sii Pan Don area, this is an area of intense natural beauty.

The pace of life is slow on Khong Island and this is a great place to relax and unwind. Although not a lot of travellers make it this far south there are still a good range of hotels and guesthouses here and many visitors are tempted to extend their stay as they become seduced by the gentle pace of life.

The 12 mile long island is home to a stunning collection of flora and fauna and for the patient it is possible to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphins playing in the Mekong River. A good way to spend a day is trekking to the the Khonephapheng waterfall, which is one of the largest falls in Southeast Asia.

Another pleasant activity is to hire a boat and simply sail away. Many villages are located on the banks of the river such as Muang Saen village and this is a good way to visit these villages and meet the friendly people that live there.

There are a number of pretty temples and monasteries to explore on Khong Island, among them Wat Phu Khao Kaew, where the monks who stay there are welcoming and happy to answer questions.

Palm sugar production is big business on Khong Island due to the large number of palm trees. As you wander around the island you will be able to watch to sugar being harvested for the palm trees and women boiling it in huge metal pans. When the palm sugar is cool it hardens and tastes a lot like fudge. The palm sugar is delicious either eaten on its own or added to tea or coffee and makes a great souvenir.

The evenings are quiet on Khong Island. Sit by the river and watch the sun set through the palm trees. Many people gather at the night market, and this is a good place to swap gossip, do some shopping and find a good meal.

Kratie, Cambodia

Kratie, Cambodia
kratie_4

Situated on the banks of the Mekong River in eastern Cambodia, Kratie is a pretty colonial town surrounded by natural beauty. Although not a major tourist attraction in itself, large numbers of people flock here for the chance to spot the beautiful Irrawaddy Dolphins.

It is possible to visit Kratie on a day trip from Stung Treng, which is three hours away. However, Kratie’s quiet charm and the warmth of the local people coaxes many people to extend their stay for several days in order to explore fully and enjoy the tranquillity.

Kratie was developed by French colonialists towards the end of the 19th century and as you explore you will discover a number of French colonial buildings nestled alongside traditional wooden Cambodian houses.

Tragically, there are less than a hundred Irrawaddy Dolphins play in the waters of the mighty Mekong. A good time to spot them is at sunset and you can hire a boat and driver to take you out onto the river.

Perhaps the best way to fully explore Kratie is by hiring a bicycle from one of the many guesthouses. Cycle to the pretty pagoda of Sasar Moy Roy with its 100 pillars. According to legend this pagoda holds the ashes of a princess who was killed by a crocodile more than 500 years ago.

 Climb the steps to the top of Phnom Sambok for fantastic views of the river and surrounding countryside and visit the traditional Cambodian temple of Wat Roka Kandal. Forget about noisy motos, horse and cart is the main form of transport in Kratie and this is an interesting way to get around and see the sights.

There are a number of pretty islands close to Kratie such as Koh Trong and Kho Pdao. As you explore you will also discover a number of floating villages, where you can watch fish being caught in the traditional way and perhaps buy the catch of the day to be cooked at one of the local restaurants.

The sunsets over Kratie are simply spectacular and many people gather in the evening to watch the dying of the day. Enjoy freshly caught river fish at one of the many riverside restaurants and wash it down with a beer or two for the perfect end to a relaxing day.  

Eastern Cambodia

Eastern Cambodia
Eastern Cambodia
Eastern Cambodia

Bordered by Vietnam, the eastern region of Cambodia is scattered with picturesque hill tribe villages. This is a good place for hiking and there is plenty of natural beauty to discover such as waterfalls, caves and forests.

Many people head straight to the town of Kratie to watch the Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in the river, while the town of Stung Treng is also a good place to relax for a while.

The mighty Mekong River runs through this region and travelling by boat is a great way to reach many of the area’s towns and cities. Fish is plentiful here and the local market is a great place to find freshly cooked fish dishes.

The region’s proximity to Vietnam means that visitors will discover an interesting blend of Khmer and Vietnamese styles in many of the border towns, which is particularly apparent in the designs of the temples, clothes and food. Spend some time in eastern Cambodia before hopping across the border to discover an entirely different side of life.