A Solar Eclipse in Burma

Categories Adventures in Transportation, Cultural Quirks, Myanmar (Burma), Where Have I Been?

In light of this week’s total lunar eclipse, I thought I would write about my trip down the Ayeyarwaddy in Burma to view a solar eclipse. I originally planned to take the train back from Myitkyina to Mandalay – until I realized that the annular solar eclipse on January 15 would be passing over Asia, with the eclipse’s central line hovering over northern Burma. There also happened to be a government slow boat plying the waters from Bhamo to Mandalay, what was supposed to be a 2-day ride. Those of you following me on Twitter know that I have a love of astronomy, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to see a solar eclipse in relative isolation. It ended up being a spectacular trip, with days spent karaoke-ing with the captain and watching the world go by, and evenings huddled on deck with hundreds of locals, chasing the shadows on the banks of the river.

This boat ride was part two of my epic trip out of the northern reaches of Burma, with the first part resulting in our tiny longtail boat dying in the middle of the Ayeyarwaddy and my safety whistle coming to the rescue to get us towed to shore. After this disaster of a day, most of the tourists in our boat decided to take the train back to Mandalay. A few of us decided that the eclipse was well worth whatever misadventure awaited and booked our tickets on the government ferry. (Note: it was then that I ended up licking the money to prove to the government worker that it was sufficiently new, thereby resulting in his calling the hotel manager to deal with me).

The first indication of our trip being a little longer than expected was when we showed up at the dock and were informed that our boat was anchored “out there” somewhere, with a vague waving of the hand toward the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy. Stuffed into a longtail, we passed by several boats stuck in the river and were told that the water was far lower than expected. The trip might take a little longer, but not to worry – we’d get there.

Exhibit A: This boat wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

Finally, we arrived at our trusty steed:

Government slow boat from Bhamo to Mandalay

The boat ended up leaving quite late as we had to wait for the longtails to taxi all of our passengers to the boat. As a result, almost immediately after lifting the anchor, the light began to change and the solar eclipse began. Sharing two pairs of eclipse glasses, we headed to the front of the boat with several of the locals:

Burmese woman watching the solar eclipse

With the captain blaring dance music from his cabin, we danced on deck and watched the sun disappear in the afternoon light.

Solar eclipse over the Ayeyarwaddy in Burma

This was the co-captain and his family, who had never seen eclipse glasses before:

Burmese family watching the solar eclipse

Try as we might, we couldn’t get this crew member to stop staring at the sun through his t-shirt, even when we told him it could damage his eyesight:

Eerie, hazy glow over the boat as the sun slowly disappeared:

The light cast a hazy glow on the ship's flag and the river in front of us.

The eclipse cast great light on the rest of the ship. Here is the view looking back from the front where we were standing:

On the slow boat to Mandalay

Me and the “Swiss misses”, two young Swiss girls also on board, making the “It’s Eclipse O’Clock!” sign. Everyone was having a terrific time.

Making the international sign of the eclipse

Well, not everyone:

Ok, not everyone loved the eclipse.

And the main star of the show! Photo taken by putting the eclipse glasses up to my camera lens and manually adjusting the settings. I was using only a point & shoot, so it’s not the best quality.

Eclipse O'clock!

Map of the eclipse’s reach over Burma:

Map of the Jan 15 Eclipse over Burma

Eclipse over, a routine was established. Days were spent lounging on deck or watching the traffic on the Ayeyarwaddy, meeting the constant stream of locals who found it very odd that we were even on the boat when we could have taken a train instead. Mornings down on the main floor, stuffed like sardines at tiny wooden tables eating fried rice or mohinga for breakfast. They were luxuriously lazy days of watching and learning.

Afternoon sun over the river:

Afternoon sun over the Ayeyarwaddy, Burma

Me and the Swiss Misses:

While at first shy, the locals soon opened up to the few of us tourists on board. We taught them how to play Memory using a deck of cards, practiced card tricks and did yoga in the morning (the latter being the most crowd-gathering of all our activities).

Rob doing card tricks on the sleeping deck:

Teaching card tricks on the slow boat to Mandalay

Enjoying an afternoon snack:

Enjoying the boat ride to Mandalay

Making new friends:

The captain soon decided he should get to know us too. Like every other person in Burma, he had to ask the basics: where was I from, where (no, really – where) was my husband and how old was I. Like the monks in Mandalay who stalled on Question 3, the captain had a small breakdown when he found out I was older than him. “But you are BABY LOOKING!” he accused. And thus a new nickname was born: “pyiesee” (pronounced pee-see), meaning little Burmese girl. By the end of the trip, the entire crew (chef included) was calling me this, yelling it out from the far reaches of the boat and even on the loudspeaker. They thought it was hilarious.

And then the captain challenged me to a karaoke-off. Burma’s most popular rock band is Iron Cross and they helpfully provide karaoke DVDs with the songs first redone in Burmese and then the original video played thereafter in English. So we would switch off, with him singing Living on a Prayer in Burmese, and then my doing so in English. Several DVDs and songs, from Journey to Air Supply to Toni Braxton followed. Soon, the crew decided the whole boat should hear this and thus the karaoke-off was fed into the ship’s PA system, for everyone to sing along.

Singing karaoke with the captain on the slow boat to Mandalay

Of course, he then decided I ought to try and drive the boat:
Driving the boat in Burma

At this point, I had passed his test and was thus invited to drink shots of bamboo whiskey with the crew. The chef’s wife made a point of shaking her head at me – behaviour not fitting for a woman, it appeared. Warm from the whiskey, I crept up to the front deck at dusk with my camera and a notebook, enjoying the quiet and the beautiful scene.

Sunset and birds over the ayeyarwaddy river in Burma

During the course of our trip, the boat would cross-cross the river and make short stops on each shore. Passengers would pour onto the deck, chased by vendors trying to sell some snacks before our rickety boat pushed off again. Some of the larger villages required additional supplies, and thus in Katha we had half an hour to run through the town and explore:

Katha, Burma in the late morning light.

With only a few moments in Katha, I was glad to have caught this amazing older man in the middle of his board game with his family. Such expression on his face! I wish I had the time to find out what his life was like and how he saw the world.

Board game in Katha, Burma

Our last day on board, already over 24 hours late (we got stuck in the sandbar several times), the sun started to disappear over the horizon and everyone on board – monks and photojournalists alike – congregated on deck to watch:

Monks watching dusk fall over the Ayeyarwaddy in Burma

The final sunset on the approach to Mandalay was a glorious one:
Final sunset on the approach to Mandalay

Overall, a terrific solar eclipse and fascinating few days of laughter, cultural exchange and karaoke. I met very few people who took the slow boat but I highly recommend it if you have the time to spare. Those 3 days were some of the best on my travels.

UPDATE: Full photo album of the slow boat from Bhamo to Mandalay in my Picasa Gallery.


20 comments to A Solar Eclipse in Burma

  1. Now that is an action packed and exciting boat trip — great photos, as usual!

  2. I love reading your posts on Burma. Although I didn’t make it over there during my recent trip, I hope to go when I return to Asia next year.

    BTW, your photos are beautiful!

  3. I would have thought looking at the eclipse through your t-shirt is going to ruin the whole experience. Love the pictures BTW.

  4. I just watched some Iron Cross videos from a Burmese restaurant here in Chiang Mai! Sure is better than the watery rock the Thais put out :)

    • Ah yes – I watched them at Hmwe as well. Memories :) The Burmese do love their Iron Cross; they played live at the Kachin Fair when I was up in Myitkyina, to a dancing, singing audience of over 10,000.

  5. This sounds like a truly amazing adventure :)

  6. Ah, great post. I like the shots of those wearing the glasses; it’s almost as if you don’t have to see what they’re looking at… you see the wonder in their expression. (The shot of the little one with the Mickey Mouse-like mark on the forehead is cute, too.)

    Pyiesee: what an adorable nickname. I can only imagine how fun an experience this was, from the loud-speaker karaoke-ing to the lazy lounging on the deck.

    Thanks for sharing. Something to add my ever-growing list of things to do.

    Happy holidays,

  7. I’ve always wanted to see a solar eclipse, they just don’t happen so often in the US (next one is in 2017 for the US). But great account! And awesome that you got to see the solar eclipse with the Burmese scenery.

  8. I love the slow boat!!! Great story and your photos are wonderful. The picture of the eclipse is incredible. The “stuck on a boat” situation always seems to create interesting and memorable moments. Thanks for sharing!!! B well, Phil

  9. One of those experiences that is “once in a lifetime.” WOW!!!

  10. I love that you managed to find eclipse glasses & shared them with all the people on board – you’re so adorable.

    And memory – there’s a card game I forgot. Sounds like we’ll be needing them on the 24 hr delayed boats. :)

  11. That is truly awesome. I mean AWE-some. I would love to see a solar eclipse.

  12. I’ve been enjoying your posts (mostly on Burma) for some time. It amazes me how well you connect with people you meet in your travels and the experiences you get out of it. I learned tons about Burma from you before I visited it.
    Thanks for your posts.

    • Thank you Irena. The Burmese were particularly thirsty to connect, especially up in Myitkyina and on the boat where there are rarely any tourists. For a country wedged in such isolation to have ‘access’ to tourists on a slow boat for a few days? Well, they were quite excited. I should note that the government had put people on board to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t talk too much with the locals. They also came out to glare at us whenever we took pictures of the teak on the river or the oil barrels at its shores. As always with Burma, we all tried to be very careful and stay away from any political discussions so as not to get any of the passengers in trouble.

      Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed!

  13. Jodi,

    Beautiful photos as usual. What an experience! I’m curious to hear more about the guards on the ship. Did you have to pre-arrange to have them there as a condition for your travel? Was this foreigner specific? I’m always curious about how countries try to walk that blurry line between accepting tourists while trying to maintain journalistic silence. I’ve seen you’ve had some experience (re: during your Thailand trip with the Red Shirt protest). What would your #1 advice be for those traveling to a country that might be politically unstable? I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand myself but feel uncomfortable with how unpredictable (in time and magnitude) these uprising are.

    Once again, thanks for sharing. Happy Holidays!


    • Hi Stella, thanks for your comment. To be clear, these were not guards on the ship. They were plain clothed officials put on the boat to keep an eye on us foreigners. They never once identified themselves to us or talked to us, but it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to notice that they were clearly watching us for a specific reason. They’d surface when we’d drift by any oil or teak on the river. Re the Thai protests, I decided to stay put despite the devolution of events in Bangkok because I had come to love the city and my tiny soi where things were going awry. Many tourists did leave – to the islands, to Bali, to the Philippines – but it was a personal choice to stay put. There’s certainly no predicting how events will go when violence flares up, but the best thing is to keep an eye on the news on forums (Travelfish’s forum for the State of Emergency in Thailand was extremely helpful: http://www.travelfish.org/board/post/thailand/10221_state-of-emergency-declared-in-bangkok in cutting to the heart of what was going on), on Twitter (@bangkokpundit, @journotopia, @karmanomad @newley were all very good sources of info as they were each on the ground) and (with a grain of salt) on the news and then make your own judgment call. Many people told me I shouldn’t have stayed in Bangkok but ultimately I chose not to listen.

      Other than informing yourself as thoroughly as possible, I don’t have specific advice. It’s a very personal choice and many people would prefer to skip that kind of travel for somewhere more innocuous. I’m sure my parents wish I were one of those people :)

  14. What a boat trip! Crisp and clean photos too, I really like them.


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