Thar she blows, the HMS Artist’s Impression, hereinafter known as AIM. Still virtually unmarked and unchipped, this was only her fourth voyage along the Irrawaddy River. The plan is to do 17 cruises a year. You can see Michelle reclining in our balcony on the top deck, left hand side. We occupy one of only two luxury suites on the ship. The reason we chose it was that the affordable cabins had sold out when we went to book and we had to move up and pay up if we wanted to see Myanmar before it becomes overrun with tourists worse than us. As soon at the word spread throughout the platoon that we were in a suite, we were labelled as deceptively wealthy, despite my protests that writing has a negative cash flow and Michelle works for a not-for-profit organisation that pays a barely-there salary.
The AIM has 22 cabins, meaning about 40 people. The Australian owner, Scenic Cruises, has Australianised it so that it takes our power plugs and supplies plenty of free beer. In fact, all the drinks are free unless you want get into exotic spirits and Champagnes. Our cabin has a bedroom, lounge, bathroom and private deck area right at the front. When we arrived, there was a bottle of Billecart Champagne waiting on the ice. Assuming there would be one every day I opened it and swigged away as I unpacked with decreasing efficiency. Consequently, I arrived drunk at dinner; not a good start, because I get overly friendly and a bit loud.
The AIM makes quite a song and dance about its facilities, but they turn out to be like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. For instance, when I peered in through the glass doors of the fitness centre, it looked spacious, with many machines, but when I actually stepped inside I found thousands of machines and thousands of Frasers because the three walls were mirrors. There were actually three just-okay machines and one not-okay Fraser.
Speaking of not-oaky, Don was offloaded to the Mandalay Hospital a couple of days ago with a blood pressure problem, accompanied by his wife as prompt. He’s expected to re-join the cruise further up river, but I could imagine him in a grubby bed surrounded by doctors, nurses and medical students all agog as he recounted his medical history, throwing in a brave laugh between chapters. They would soon realise that he is the sickest person ever admitted to the Mandalay General and that most of the occupants of the morgue were in better shape than Don.
Back to the AIM. It is really a cleverly designed ship for river cruising. The food is generally excellent and the grog enticing. There is a swimming pool on the upper deck which tends to overflow when more than four hefty platoon members lower their bodies into the lukewarm water. On the very top deck is a synthetic grass walking track and a canvas roofed sitting area for quiet drinking or a seated smoke for those who indulge.
Our bathroom defies physics by holding more fittings than it can. What it needs are traffic lights if there are two people trying to move around in it. Because it has a bath (which is really a waste of space) the shower door has to be hinged so that you can’t get in and out without impaling yourself on the soap holder. However, the shower pressure is far better than I expected to find on a ship.
AIM interior designers have paid special attention to lighting in the cabins. The lights are all on sensors – sensible to save electricity. But the sensors behave like naughty children. They turn off the lights when you are in the middle of doing something and they turn them on when all you want to do is scratch your nose in the dark.
Our lounge room has a television which suffers from being unable pick up much in the way of regular signals, a desk, coffee table, couch and a bar fridge that does not cool its contents. We asked how to turn it on but were told that while it might look like a bar fridge, with its glass door and interior shelves it is, in fact, a cupboard for holding drinks – which then have to be cooled with ice in a bucket. I’ve discovered a knob inside the warm cupboard which looks like a fridge cooling controller and I’m making myself a nuisance with maintenance to try to morph it back into a fridge. I want to experience what it is like to pig out on a minibar without going to debtor’s prison.
Because there are no wharves along the river for embarkation the AIM simply noses into the sandy bank and runs a rickety companionway on to the shore. It also ties up to the strongest trees the crew can find along the river bank, fore and aft. As we leave each port and head down the river I wonder if the captain ever forgets the aft rope and tows a tree along.
The cruise planners believe, probably correctly, that tourists want to see world record stuff. Thus yesterday we were taken on a walking tour in Mingun to see the world’s heaviest bell. Housed near yet another pagoda, this bell weighs 90 tonnes and is made from an amalgam of five metals. The Kommendant, speaking over his walkie-talkie system, told us that there is a bigger bell in Moscow, but it doesn’t ring. To reinforce this, visitors are invited to wallop the bell with wooden truncheons. I must say it made a wonderful sound. If you didn’t mind dragging your stomach across the dusty floor you can stand up inside the bell to invite hearing loss. I declined, but I saw Don’s bum disappearing beneath the bell. That might have contributed to his blood pressure problem.
That same day we visited Amara Pura, once the royal capital of Burma, where we walked halfway along the world’s longest (1.2 kilometres) and oldest (about as old as me) teak (plus a bit of hasty concreting) bridge. It has its challenges. Because the water level in the lake is low, the bridge stands about six metres in the air on skinny, occasionally swaying legs, has been poorly repaired and has no handrails. Everybody, therefore, is frightened of falling off and walks in the middle, creating a traffic jam. We descended at the halfway point to pick up a wobbly sampan which just manages to hold ‘two person’ in addition to the paddler. Local bubbly was served and we bobbed about until the sun obligingly set behind the bridge and everybody took award winning photos with their tablets and phones. I was the only one with an uncool little digital camera which once was a stunning piece of technology with three megapixels.
Tourism will become a major money earner for Myanmar; goodness knows the country needs it. The unemployment rate is 40 per cent while 36 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. It needs a strong department of tourism to plan and control the potential.
As it is, private enterprise, especially retail, is still being run by little, privately owned stalls or walk-and-irritate mobile vendors who are persistent in the extreme. For example, yesterday afternoon we left the mothership for a horse and buggy ride through Ava Inwa. Before disembarking I saw the brightly clothed vendors gathering like and army on the bank. As we took a grassy track to the assembled horses and carts, the vendors descended, thrusting beads, bells, statues and bangles into our faces. If you ask the price, that signals your interest and you have a fight on your hands to close down the deal. A tactic I’ve noticed here is that the vendors, mostly women, let you off an immediate purchase if you promise ‘maybe later’. But you’re then a marked target and the vendor will accompany you on your tour. When we got into the horse and buggy I was relieved that we would shake off our vendor who had her small son with her. Not so. As we jolted violently over rough stone roads she took to her bicycle, the kid hanging on the back, and tailgated us, with a like-minded peloton behind her. When the boy dropped his thong she stopped, picked it up, told him off, and powered through the peloton to resume her position. In the end many tourists simply give them money to get them out of the way so they can see what they came to see.