November 2014 (it won’t have changed much).
We’re waiting for the ‘same boat’ we were on two days before but the horn of an earlier one loudly announces its approach while we’re in the tea shop. We grab our bags and whisk ourselves off down the jetty steps to climb aboard a much emptier and, it turns out, slightly slower craft. It’s a local boat rather than an express. It stops everywhere. Even at the poorest of places – and that’s saying something.
Two small children with sticks chase even smaller grey pigs back behind a fence. A bigger girl with two zinc buckets full of purple leaves on a yolk across her shoulders stands knee deep in the water. A young woman passes her baby aboard before climbing up herself.
The crew of a smaller boat is unloading a large amount of bagged gravel by hand. Many people are using the river to wash themselves and their clothes, some alone, more in small groups.
A child carries buckets of water on a pole up the steep, step-less bank. Two small naked boys play in a small canoe. Two older boys use theirs to fish. Half a dozen monks sun themselves spreadeagled on a sandbank, unseen from their village.
Except where it turns the river is very wide. We pass Shwe Loun Paya, a large wooden monastery on a small island. One village’s name sign says it has 469 houses, 1359 men and 1500 women. A square white church with a thin white cross standing before it squats on a low hill nearby.
Clouds top the mountains in the distance to the east. The air begins to cool, the sun starts to set and we round the final bend in the last light of the day to see the ‘city’ of Homalin lighting up along the eastern riverbank, the shore crowded with boats.
And then a moment of madness.
As soon as the nose of the boat touches the jetty 50 or 60 shouting people swarm noisily, eagerly, earnestly, emphatically aboard. They are trying to secure for themselves the momentary role of agent for anyone seeking onward travel by boat. Not twenty metres away one guy with a ledger on a table sells tickets to these temporary agents, paying them a completely pointless commission, while the true customers watch from nearby.
We will be travelling on to Mawleik but we don’t get involved. Not least because everyone wants to charge us a special ‘foreigner price’ that’s three times the going rate. The next day at a different jetty a few hundred meters to the north we have no trouble getting a ticket at the price locals pay.
[We had some trouble finding budget accommodation in Homalin. The cheapest place was full or at least became ‘full’ once we turned up, the already-occupied rooms being taken by police officers. We ended up at pretty nice place but had to pay a premium.]
It’s a fair sized town with all the things you’d expect of one, including a couple of great beer stations, and a few more besides. An early morning walk revealed the Homalin Happy Club and the tennis courts. The strand road has flower beds all along its central reservation. Near the market the city’s only internet connection came via a receiver stuck high on a bamboo pole above a shop. 2G.
While down at the riverside checking out boat options I saw a car crash victim loaded uncomfortably into a boat along with several bottles of the oxygen he was breathing. He was at least breathing.
Away from the river on the town’s scruffy pitch the Homalin District Football Festival is getting underway. A marching band of pom-pommed kids leads the opening celebrations. Their flutes are made from that ubiquitous blue plastic water pipe. They compete with the over loud, horror film, over-gory bullfight and premier league football repeat showing at the triple-TV teashop over the road.
Beyond the funky Buddha park the countryside to the east of town is pretty enough but before we get too far into it we are stopped as we’re entering a restricted area. Air Force this time.
Turning back we come across a large pagoda being built over and to contain a smaller one. Neat trick.
A small Chin church in contrast is the flimsiest of things.
Moored on the filthy riverbank to the south of town, at dusk, we get a close-up look at a multi-storey floating chicken farm boat.
And then it’s another early night. Our boat, hopefully less crowded, leaves at 4am.
Part 1 of Carry On Up The Chindwin : To Hkamti is here.
Part 2 of Carry on Up The Chindwin : Hkamti to Hta Man Thi is here.