This morning we enjoyed a leisurely sail up the Irrawaddy River. Alternating through a landscape of brown sandbars and lush green forest canopies, the banks of the Irrawaddy are dotted with innumerable white and gold stupas. The sight of these unique architectural shapes never ceased to delight passengers. Just when you thought you’d surely seen the last stupa… We all joked that we’d return home with 4,381 photos of stupas spires on our phones. We weren’t far off.
As we sailed toward the tiny fishing village of Ohn Ne Choung, we participated in demonstrations of two Burmese cultural staples: longhi and thanaka. This educational niche is something Viking is known for. If you find yourself curious about something you experienced in the culture that day, it’s likely you’ll have a lecture, film screening, or demo about it that night. They anticipate our curiosities so well and their educational program is a highlight of the trip.
You may remember my post about thanaka face cream yesterday. Burmese men, women, and children wear it every day. In the countryside, where people are more likely to be working outside all day, people rub it over their entire body as a sunscreen. In urban environments, where that level of protection is not as necessary, people tend to create interesting deigns on their face. It’s fascinating to see. They use the cream as a sunscreen, coolant, acne mask, moisturizer, astringent…even medicinally for measles, poisoning, fever…you name it.
Longhi are the multi-functional cloth sarongs worn by men, women, and children. Not only do they allow ventilation in Myanmar’s stifling heat and humidity, they can be utilized in so many different ways. Program Director Nanda (who wears his longhi every day) and crew member Tin (ship name “Justin” a’la Timberlake) showed us the traditional long wrap skirt, shorts, a jacket, messenger bag, backpack, hat, turban to stabilize everything the women carry on their heads, and more. They even showed us how men and women use squat toilets without removing their clothing, as most westerners find it necessary to do. It was a thorough demonstration. It was also hysterical to watch him manipulate the longhi and blush at the cheers from the passengers when he’d pretend to let it fall. It was a good natured ice breaker.
By early afternoon the boat slowed to a crawl and began making its way toward a sandy shore. There are no docks for ships along on the Irrawaddy. By this time we were so far from a city that we couldn’t spy any indication of a village tucked up the hill behind a patch of Banyan trees. Then as if from nowhere, children started filtering out of the trees to catch a glimpse of our seemingly giant ship. Some were excited, giggling, and waving at us on the sun deck, others weren’t quite sure what was happening and held back. A few women followed the children, each carrying stacks of blankets on their heads, ready to sell their wares. By the time we disembarked, it felt as though every child living in the village must surely be surrounding us. Some immediately grabbed the hands of certain passengers, leading them proudly into their village. A boy around age 11 told me, boldly and quickly, through the interpretation of Nanda… “You are strong! So strong!” The girls thought my white linen gaucho pants were hysterical. I would crack them up every so often by spreading the giant parachute legs wide and flapping them like a bird. They couldn’t stop laughing at me.
Ohn Ne Choung is a traditional Burmese village of just 350 people. The few hours we spent there felt like stepping back in time. Viking River Cruises partners with this village on environmental restoration projects and development initiatives, such as a clean water well built a couple years ago. The villagers knew Nanda and welcomed us into their homes with warm smiles.
This village was one of my favorite stops on the entire itinerary. Many passengers expressed the same. Since Viking has carved out a niche as a company focused on educational travel, they attract passengers who want to get below the surface of a destination. Viking passengers ask why something is the way it is, how did it come to be that way, what is the current state of affairs, etc.? The children who run after our tour buses selling trinkets earn more money from books than anything else. Curiosity rules at Viking River Cruises. After sailing along the banks of this river, wondering what sort of life carried on just behind the tree line, we finally found out.
My most visceral memory of Ohn Ne Choung is by far the children. At first a little shy, they eventually warmed up to our presence and thought it was endlessly entertaining that we were in their village. Most of the children wanted their photo taken, and then wanted to see themselves on the screen. They would laugh and jostle each other, and speak excitedly to you as though you could understand. When you turn the camera around to show them their photo, the would only laugh harder, jostle harder, and speak in the most rapid tongues. They quickly learned which people would indulge their request for a photo every 47 seconds. It was these people they followed most closely through the village. They also figured out who would get down in the dirt with them and take the silliest of selfies. That would be me.
I’d like to offer future passenger a few travel tips: Drop your ego. Be silly. Drip sweat. Make people laugh. Repeat. I thought the kids loved when I showed them their faces in a photo on my iPhone. They nearly lost their minds when I showed them this 15 second video. The playback was requested and delivered five times. They laughed harder every time they watched it. They thought I was just making goofy faces and taking photos. They had no idea I was actually filming all of it.
Meandering through the village, I eventually rounded a corner and came upon the women who were picking peanuts off the branches. I motioned to an empty spot on their circle and then pointed at myself, shrugging my shoulders. They lit up. Massive smiles. A village elder patted the dirt next to her.
I knelt down and they showed me how to remove the stems. My knees shook after two minutes. They’d been at this all day. They were watching me snap the peanut shells off the branches with the sweetest smirk on their faces. The elder woman split a shell open to show me a peanut inside. I’m pretty sure they assumed I’d never seen a peanut before.
When I made a motion to eat it and asked, “Okay?” All of them in unison, “YAS! OKAY! HAH!” When I popped the tiny peanut in my mouth, I smiled and made a surprised, yummy face. They cracked up. They cackled and pointed at me and mimicked my overly-exaggerated face. I let them think it was my first peanut.
Looking back on the photo of me kneeling in dirty pile of peanuts (wearing white pants for whatever inexplicable reason), I’m reminded to travel as authentically as I can. We’re all humans having similar experiences, whether the specifics of the culture feel foreign to you or not. Kneel down and play with the kids. Help the women with their work, if you’re invited. Learn how to say key phrases in the local language. Curiosity wins the day if you’re craving authentic travel experiences. This Viking itinerary is perfect for people who crave that. It makes Burmese life feel instantly accessible, even if only for a few memorable moments.
Cheers to adventure,
Our Voyage Report from Viking River Cruises’ Myanmar Explorer continues in the next article as we spend a full day exploring mythical Bagan, Myanmar! Be sure to come back and keep reading. You’re also invited to follow along with adventurer Gail Jessen on Twitter or Instagram.