A Solar Eclipse in Burma

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.

-Jodi