‘On the road to Mandalay
Where the flying fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder, ‘outa China ‘crost the bay.’
In 1981 on our across Asia backpack, Lynda and I found ourselves in Myanmar, then Burma, doing the seven day circle visit ( visitors were only allowed a seven day visa at the time – which I believe has only recently changed.) We had taken an overnight train trip to Mandalay and spent a day and a night there meeting many Burmese which we found the most wonderful and hospitable people even though they were (and still are) totally repressed by the military government of the day – think it is something to do with their pacifist Buddhist beliefs.
Our next destination after Mandalay was Pagan (or Bagan) an ancient city where, at it’s height of greatness, in the 11th – 13th centuries, had built over 10,000 Buddhist temples of which over 2,000 remain today. So in the afternoon we boarded a river ferry that would take us down the mighty Irrawaddy river, along with many locals, chickens, pigs and other varieties of livestock and vegetable matter. We were accompanied by other fellow travellers – two American girls, two young German doctors who had been in Asia doing voluntary work (and who later saved my life – but that’s another story), an English girl and a BBC TV news presenter. I have to say the ferry was pretty basic in its facilities though it did boast a ‘café’ of sorts which consisted of two Burmese ladies with a charcoal brazier set up at the rear of the upper deck (though no one seemed to worry about the potential fire hazard!) where they chopped a variety of ingredients on a suspicious looking wooden block, and cooked the various ‘delicacies’ to order – needless to say we took pains not to sample their menu. Stopping along the way the ferry’s method of embarking and disembarking passengers was quite simple really – it would ram the sandy banks throw down a long and decidedly flexible plank which when retrieved the boat reversed at full throttle to disengage from the shore, and chug on at a sedate pace down river.
As the sun began to set on the Irrawaddy the ferry pulled in for the night on the northern bank at a small town called Pokkoku. We were to sleep on board but first priority to seek some food and entertainment in this little tropical backwater.
We discovered the town had a cinema, which consisted of the local village hall fitted out with sluggish ceiling fans and a number of upright wooden chairs – non of which matched and non that were particularly comfortable. Surprisingly the screen and projection equipment were of a very good standard and the movie they were showing was “Seven Nights in Japan” a 1976 film starring Michael York as Prince George (aka Prince Charles) in some dramatic and romantic adventure whist on a visit to Japan.
At the end of the movie we were approached by a local man who engaged us in conversation as he was extremely interested in who we were and where we came from. He was a fascinating and articulate character with an incredible desire for knowledge of life outside Burma – it eventually turned out that he was the local school teacher and we were enthusiastically invited back to his home for tea.
His house was a very short walk from the ‘cinema’ and we were introduced to some of his friends who had already arrived. After more conversation all seated on his balcony, accompanied by tea and honey cakes, he and his friends produced a number of old, but well cared for, musical instruments and proceeded to fill the tropical night with some wonderful music. I have no recollection of how long we stayed there but it always remains to me one of the surreal moments in our travels as the music and conversation flowed on into the night.
When we eventually had to leave and return to the ferry, though I cannot remember his name, I will always remember his final farewell to us ….
…‘Well, goodbye and thank you for your company”, he said “you have seen Seven Nights in Japan but – you will always remember one night in Pokkoku.”
…..…and we remember it well.
Footnote – unfortunately we have since lost most of our photos of our Burma visit.