I had enjoyed my adventure at Angkor in Cambodia this year enormously and found that it it boosted my post diagnosis confidence enormously. From the wheelchair days transiting Bangkok airport, I was off with a travel bag and exploring on my own. I have to say though, that if I am very honest, a break in Cambodia is perfect for boosting that confidence because it is neither physically nor logistically too challenging. You get on a flight, land in Siem Reap, waltz through immigration handing over your passport and pics in return for a full page visa, and then head out into the daylight catch a tuk tuk to your hotel and get ready to explore. Gentle yet exciting. My adventure to Mrauk U was a much more demanding trip. The journey was more complicated and physically demanding and the area far less touristed. I was travelling alone (through choice). And I was quite nervous about the whole adventure.
On 23 December, I had an afternoon flight to Sittwe. The timing was very welcome as I had been working up until the previous day and this enabled me to spend the morning packing and running out for last minute essentials such as mosquito repellent and loud toe nail varnish! Finally, I put the last essentials in my bag, switched off the fan, closed my lap top ready to head off line and upcountry for a week.
After check in I had a moment of excitement when I saw that the café in the domestic lounge advertised that was an internet café, but that was short lasted and I learned that there was no internet in fact, but a set of three sleeping computers. It took me a few moments pondering why the café used a picture of a washing machine on its signage. Only to realise that it was actually an aerial picture of a coffee cup!
My flight to Sittwe was straightforward and on time. I was amused that the passenger in front of me had among his carry on baggage, a pair of fairy wings. I hadn’t realised that we needed to bring our own wings to fly on this airline!
The flight landed as the sun was sinking in the late afternoon. I booked into the hotel, arranged my early morning transfer to the jetty and then headed out to explore Sittwe town. I managed to get really lost, and eventually had to ask directions to get back to the main street and the hotel. And promptly went right back out again, to find somewhere to eat the famous Rakhine sea food. I managed to get back safely, and despite being tempted by “adventurer lager” in the fridge, I turned in early as I had to be up long before sunrise to catch the early morning boat to Mrauk U.
I did not sleep too well, anxious not to oversleep and miss my boat, and just after 5 am I was getting myself ready to check out and head to the jetty. I had been looking forward to the sunrise journey but the morning was very very misty and dank. Not typical winter season weather at all so still very dark. Speeding through the damp streets on a motorbike tuk tuk I was chilled but soon arrived at the jetty. The boat was waiting, and my first major challenge materialised in the mist in front of me.
I am used to getting on and off boats in Myanmar, and have boarded by a variety of different types of access – from sturdy bridges to flimsy thin planks. I have given up on pride and accept help now if I am not too confident about the access. So catching sight of a narrow pair of planks, slippery in the mist and carrying my travel bag and supplies, I hovered briefly at the edge of the plank before one of the boatmen took pity on me grabbed my hand. Within moments I was safely across and on the boat. Ready for five hours of upriver cruising before I had to worry about how on earth I would get off the boat at the other end!
Our departure was delayed due to the thick mist and we watched as the early morning river activities took place around us, small wooden boats appearing through the mist bringing people from neighbouring villages and returning with goods and fish from the morning market. Figures shrouded in thick shawls and even the occasional soul wearing a Santa Claus hat to protect from the cold damp air.
Eventually, the boat hooted, the boat men leapt into action unravelling the ropes, disconnecting the electric cable from the boat which had lit up the jetty, and removing the planks and we moved away from the Sittwe jetty. I had been on the boat over an hour and finally I was heading somewhere.
As we travelled upriver, the mist slowly lifted, revealing eerie images on the river and along its banks. The broad estuary gradually narrowed as we wove our way inland, along a complicated network of waterways. By lunchtime, there was a distinct change in the atmosphere on board as local passengers started to gather their belongings, and prepared themselves for arrival in Mrauk U. The hilly area in the distance, gradually came closer and soon it was possible to spot a few temples on the hilltops. A crowd was gathered at the jetty, bicycle side car trishaws, bicycles, motorbikes and a few motorcycle tuk tuks and their drivers anxious to transport the passengers to their onward destination.
I had been on the upper deck and the ladder to get there was almost vertical not to mention extremely narrow. So manoeuvring myself, with my travel bags in my good hand and Twang Arm being used to stabilise my steps, I managed to get myself to the exit. Where I was met with a plank which was slightly less narrow, and this time dry, but steep due to the water being high. I dithered for a moment, and again one of the boat staff grabbed my hand and I quickly bounced along the plank and onto the dry land of Mrauk U. I negotiated a trishaw to the hotel and within half an hour was unpacking my bags in a room with stick on “glow in the dark” stars arranged in the Great Bear formation on a deep blue ceiling. The wardrobe had the essentials, a dressing gown, a spare blanket, a hair dryer and a bamboo hat to protect from rain or sun, which ever is prevalent at the time! I quickly settled into the room which was to be my home for the next five nights.
Eager to see the ancient temple city and its surrounds, I picked up my little backpack, hat, guide book and note book and headed off into the town to find some lunch to fortify myself for some serious exploring. And that story will be in Part 2!