Cruising the Irrawaddy River to Ohn Ne Choung
Friday, November 27, 2015
Guests aboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Mandalay were treated to a morning of scenic cruising today, as we sailed south along the Irrawaddy River bound for the town of Ohn Ne Choung.
Throughout Myanmar, you’ll find a number of variations in the spelling of places and attractions. This, in part, was due to the inability of the invading British to actually pronounce and spell local names. With more name changes than Prince, some countries still refer to Myanmar as Burma, and even locals refer to themselves as being Burmese even though Myanmar has been officially adopted as the current name of the country formerly known as Burma.
Confusing? Get ready: What you may know as the Irrawaddy River is actually the Ayeyarwady River. About half the books you will read will refer to it as the somewhat easier-to-spell Irrawaddy, while the other half will call it the Ayeyarwady, which is what locals refer to it as. For the sake of simplicity (and to match Viking’s itinerary and printed materials), I’m calling it the Irrawaddy.
You might also know Yangon better as Rangoon, its Anglicised name. Though Rangoon has gone the way of the pith helmet, Yangon still exists to this day as a bustling metropolis. You might remember it from our stay there nearly one week ago as we made our way through Myanmar on this 15-day Myanmar Explorer itinerary.
With that sorted, our morning of scenic cruising was perfectly-timed; most guests seemed to do with a bit of a sleep-in today. Speaking of, my fellow guests are predominantly British; almost two-to-one, in fact. Only a few are from the United States, and one couple resides in Hong Kong. As on many of these itineraries, I am the lone representative from Canada.
All my fellow guests are well-educated and well-travelled. For most of them, Myanmar – or Burma – is a bucket-list destination that few would attempt on their own, but which all are completely willing to try with Viking’s help.
It takes absolutely no effort to relax here onboard the Viking Mandalay. In Myanmar, because the ship isn’t a Viking-owned ship (it’s owned and operated by Pandaw River Explorations), Viking can’t offer its drink-all-you-want Silver Spirits Package that allows for beer, wine and unlimited spirits – but Viking has come up with the next best thing.
Here onboard Viking Mandalay, beer, wine and soft drinks are complimentary during lunch and dinner. Additionally, locally produced spirits and beers are also complimentary – throughout the day. Onboard, you can find Mandalay Beer (quite good), along with a very drinkable, locally produced whisky, and both dark and white varieties of local rum.
Cocktail Hour – occurring daily from 6:00 p.m. until dinner, which is typically served at 7:00 p.m. – is also a source of free beverages, with a daily alcoholic drink special offered at no additional charge.
Viking Mandalay also boasts a very decent coffee machine up on the Sun Deck, where the attentive bar staff is all too happy to offer you up a cappuccino, latte, hot chocolate, black coffee, or one of six different kinds of Twinning’s teas.
It’s also worth mentioning how spectacular Viking has been regarding my allergy to nuts. The staff has really gone above and beyond for me on this run, as they would for any guest with special dietary requirements. That’s why it’s so important to note any dietary restrictions on your booking form when you make your booking. The galley can accommodate almost any dietary requirement, given the proper amount of time. For me, the stress I felt with eating on land here in Myanmar just a few days ago has melted away completely.
Viking has clearly taken great strides to offer a mix of traditional Burmese dishes and ones that also appeal to a North American palate. In fact, you could call much of the food Burmese-European or Burmese-American thanks to the fusion of local ingredients and herbs with flavours that are likely to appeal to foreigners.
This afternoon, we came alongside a dusty portion of the riverbank that borders the town of Ohn Ne Choung. Put down your guidebook; you won’t find it listed in there. It’s such a small town, in fact, that most travellers to Myanmar will never find it – unless they take a river cruise. Secluded and out of the way, stumbling upon Ohn Ne Choung is a near-impossibility.
To visit Ohn Ne Choung is to step back in time hundreds of years. Streets are designed in a pseudo-grid pattern indicative of most settlements, with dirt streets that send plumes of dust up into the atmosphere with surprising regularity. It hangs there, seemingly suspended in time, creating volumetric shadows whenever and wherever the fading light of day hits it.
It also gets in your mouth. Some places have a smell; Ohn Ne Choung has a taste. It’s a gritty, unpleasant, lip-smacking one that you soon realize also cakes your clothing and coats your shoes in a fine layer of reddish-yellow particles.
This is a traditional town, with simple houses situated in large yards. Property lines are drawn in the sand, so to speak, by an impressive array of fences created from palm chutes. These Burmese picket fences are amazingly well created, and serve to provide the town of Ohn Ne Choung with a Pleasantville-esque quality.
Even here, in this simplest of places, disparity is evident. On one side is a hut, made of ramshackle materials. There are no windows or doors. In the front yard, a rooster pecks its head back-and-forth as it makes its way across the dirt. An old woman, probably in her 80s, sits on the dilapidated porch, carefully eyeing the strange array of people who are now turning their Canons and Nikons on her.
Yet, next door, is a larger house. This one has doors and windows that have been swung open to let the breeze waft through the building. It’s basic by Western standards, but the owners have obviously embraced some form of commercialism: On the other side of the house sits a massive, decked-out, Toyota Land Cruiser SUV.
I have no idea what that particular SUV goes for, but in Canada, a similar model might run you just shy of 50,000 big ones. Our Viking Program Director Andrew asks the gentleman and his wife, who emerge from the house, what they do. It turns out they own a restaurant in Mandalay. Judging by the size of his SUV, I briefly wonder if he’s the chap that owns the KFC I saw a few days ago; I doubt he’s making that kind of coin by running a local Tea Shop. The Colonel pays, and he pays well.
What I loved about Ohn Ne Choung were the kids; the village kids that literally followed us around like locusts for the entire 90-minute duration of our walk. Many of the women in our group found themselves with a new friend for life; young Burmese children will just come up and take their hands and walk with them.
The kids say hello in perfect English, and can hold down a decent conversation in English as well. Despite the fact that they’re from a rural village, they’re well-educated; Program Director Andrew asked a group of five boys if they could count to ten; they did so without any effort. He wrote Burmese numbers in the sand with a stick; the kids squealed with delight, often answering before each number had been fully drawn.
To preserve this wonderfully innocent experience, Viking contributes financially to projects in the village – but encourages guests to not give money out, or trinkets like pens and pencils. The reason for that is that the company doesn’t want to encourage the kind of rampant begging that you see in other countries – and I agree with this. A pen may seem like an innocuous gift but remember: Viking comes here every Friday. What is a gift at first can turn into an expectation later, and it only takes a trip or two to Egypt or Turkey to see how that’s panned out in the past.
For me, our visit to Ohn Ne Choung was a spectacular privilege; one that I hope continues to exist in the future even as Myanmar sits at the precipice of great change.
I am also impressed for other reasons: Viking has clearly done its homework here. Myanmar may not be in Viking’s operational backyard, as Europe is, but the line has put the same thought and dedication into its explorations ashore here in Myanmar that it would for any river cruise along the Danube or the Rhine.
That, to me says a lot. Viking doesn’t spend a lot of time promoting its Exotic river cruise itineraries, and I think that’s a shame.
Viking has a real gem of a river cruise here in Myanmar, and it will make you view the world in an entirely different light.
Viking Mandalay - Myanmar Explorer
|Day 1||Bangkok, Thailand|
|Day 2||Bangkok, Thailand|
|Day 3||Yangon, Myanmar|
|Day 4||Yangon, Myanmar and Shwedagon Pagoda|
|Day 5||Inle Lake, Myanmar|
|Day 6||Inle Lake, Myanmar|
|Day 7||Mandalay, Myanmar; Embark Viking Mandalay|
|Day 8||Mandalay, Myanmar & the U Bein Bridge|
|Day 9||Ohn Ne Choung, Myanmar|
|Day 10||Bagan, Myanmar|
|Day 11||Salay, Myanmar|
|Day 12||Yandabo, Myanmar|
|Day 13||Myint Mu, Myanmar|