Irrawaddy Cargo Ferry

Before Nick and I even left the United States, Nick heard of a local ferry that takes passengers down the Irrawaddy river from Bhamo to Katha and stopping in Mandalay. He was set on taking this ferry and I think the main reason was because passengers sleep on the deck. In order for this to work out, our timing in Myanmar had to be perfect. Nothing could go wrong or not only would our visa expire, we would miss our flight to Bangkok. The likelihood that Nick and I actually made it onto this ferry was slim. When our Lonely Planet Guidebook was written buses were forbidden to take foreigners to Katha and Bhamo due to civil conflict. Would it be possible now to take a bus? Would the ferry be running the exact day we wanted to catch it? How long would the ferry take? There were so many pieces to the puzzle.

Nick bought bus tickets to Katha without a problem in Mandalay. The bus company said we would leave Mandalay at 4 pm and arrive in Katha at 5 (this probably meant we would arrive at 1 am). We didn’t want to arrive in the middle of the night, so Nick changed our tickets to Bhamo, just north of Katha by 80 miles. This way we would leave Mandalay at 4 pm arriving Bhamo at 6 am and catch the ferry the following day. We boarded the night bus but little did Nick and I know this would be the worst bus experience we have had yet.

Although our seats reclined 1-2 inches this was a far cry from a night bus. As a Burmese comedy show played loudly throughout the night (which Nick and I had already seen on another night bus), the lights turned on every 30 minutes and passengers were car sick (which is extremely common in Asia), we tried to rest. At 2 am, we were told to get off the bus. We checked our map app and we were not in Bhamo. The driver insisted. We eventually got off and walked a few blocks to another bus. It took us 12 hours to drive 215 miles. There was no way we were making it to Bhamo. Okay, change of plans, we were 17 miles away from Katha, we would get off there. The bus drove north on windy single lane dirt roads. This was the opposite direction of where we wanted to go! The bus eventually took us 27 miles (1.5 hours) in the wrong direction. We got off, ate breakfast and waited an hour for a transfer. Eventually, we jumped on our third bus which took us back to where we had originally transferred buses. We were still 17 miles from Katha and it was now 8:30 am. Ahhhh, it clicked, the bus station sold us tickets, assuming it would take us 24 hours to go 275 miles. What!? Silly us for assuming am, not pm.

After 17 hours and little sleep, we arrived to Katha. We checked into a small guesthouse with nice accommodations. It seemed as if Nick and I have lowered our standards as our rodent roommate, non-functioning squatter toilets and pigeons living in the ceiling, didn’t seem to phase us. We explored the small colonial town, home to British police officer and author, Geoege Orwell. Nick and I later visited the market and ferry office. We learned that the ferry would not run tomorrow. Bummer. Okay, we’d double check again tomorrow then take the train back. The next day, we walked around town and it seemed like Friday morning was dedicated to hair cuts, bucket bathing and drying fish. We enjoyed a traditional burmese breakfast of bao and tea (burmese black tea, evaporated milk, condensed milk, water and salt) at a small teahouse. Initially, Nick and I found the local food to be extremely oily and greasy, however have come to adore the cuisine. The silver pots full of curries, fresh peanut and vegetable salads, fermented tea leaves, fish pastes, and rice line the streets. Bamboo baskets full of fried treats and shan noodle stalls will be missed.

Breakfast Bao & Burmese Tea
Burmese Tea House
Fish Drying

After breakfast, we returned to the ferry office. To our surprise, a ferry would be running at 5 pm, however for 30,000 k. Everyone told us the deck should only cost 10,000 k. We tried to haggle but left to mull it over. After hours of a simple misunderstanding we returned to see written, the amount due of 13,000 k. We said, “Ah, thirteen thousand k.””Yes, thirty thousand khat,” the man responded.

So we had arrived to Katha and purchased ferry tickets. Now all that was left was to find the ferry. Needless to say, Nick and I ran around town for 2 hours looking for an “unmissable” jetty and ferry. My ankle was sore, Nick was carrying all of our gear and no one seemed to know where we were going. After asking directions from about 20 locals we found the obvious jetty (photographed below) among other dozens of boats lining the shore.

Boat Jetty

Although 2 hours late, the double decor cargo ferry arrived. We walked past the goods which included bags of rice, star fish, recycled cardboard and bamboo furniture. We went upstairs past the more expensive cabins and arrived to the deck. There were about 15 other people sleeping on the deck with us including families and soldiers. We had some snacks and feel asleep. It was cold and the bright lights stayed on all night. At one point I woke up, stuck my head out from the covers to see thousands of moths attracted to the light. Disoriented I quickly put the cover back over my head and five moths were trapped inside fluttering around. Although, we passed some horrific smells we had a relaxing night.

When you wake up to thousands of these guys…

The next morning we woke to a beautiful sunrise. We enjoyed the slow river life and eventually explored the boat. We had a delicious lunch of rice and vegetables prepared by the boat restaurant (photographed below). We chatted with some locals and watched a Bollywood film. After, an American movie played on the screen that captured everyone’s attention. A porn, cannibalist, gore movie that made nick and I crawl in our skin. We couldn’t watch and couldn’t imagine who decided to play this and what the locals thought of it. Overall, this ferry seemed more like a cruise ship with a “cinema”, “dining hall”, sleeping quarters, but you know, the type of cruise ship you get for $10.

Sunrise on the Irrawaddy River
5:30 am

After 25 days spent in Myanmar, Nick and I are not in a hurry to leave. This country is changing fast and it was our pleasure to observe. People were happy to describe a more democratic system that is trying to provide a better life for everyone. However, we are worried by some of the ways in which this is happening, including, massive amounts of pollution, speedy migration to metropolitian areas, and a far from eco-tourist friendly system. We hope the very special people, rich culture, unique food and inspiring landscape is preserved for generations to come. We learned more everyday.

Click here to watch our Myanmar video!

Luang Nam Tha

Nick and I took the sleeper bus to Luang Nam Tha and arrived at 1am. As we still had a week before our Laos visa expired and were doing well on budget we decided to do a 2 day jungle trek and kayak trip. Nick did a great job researching tour agencies and discovered that of the 10 tour agencies in town there were only 3 owners. Of the 3, only 1 was owned by a local villager who actually practiced eco tourism and was transparent about where exactly our money was going. Thus, it was easy to decide we’d book with Forest Retreat Laos. 

Rant: Nick and I are spending our life savings on this trip and keep track of every yen, tughrik, dong and kip spent. We are traveling as low to the ground as possible. We cook oatmeal and ramen some days and buying shampoo or conditioner is a real treat. With that being said, it is so important to spend your money wisely. Backpacks are often discussing costs and budgets and forget the importance of ensuring that your travels have a positive impact on the local economy. While not getting ripped off is important, it’s surely more important to make sure the money you spend doesn’t lead to locals getting underpaid. If you can’t tip a guide, then don’t take a tour. Do your research and pay a few extra dollars for a company that gives money back to the  community in which you are traveling. If an entire village is asking you to buy a 50 cent bracelet, buy the 50 cent bracelet, because at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do. End rant. 

On the first day of our tour, we hiked and bush whacked about 10 miles through the Nam Ha Protected Area. This protected area is home to tigers, clouded leopards, barking deer and snakes. The lush jungle has been the most remote we’ve seen thus far in SE Asia. It was more of an adventure than expected as our guide got lost about half way through the trek and we didn’t return to the trail until dusk. We saw a variety of interesting insects, spiders and hornets (of course, nick got stung), however as usual in Southeast Asia jungles there was a lack of larger wildlife . Our guide has seen wild pigs, pythons and 1 tiger print in his 16 years of guiding. We arrived to a local village at dark and helped prepare dinner (pumpkin, mustard greens and sticky rice) over an open fire.




The next morning Nick and I explored Ban Nalan Village which insists of 200 Khmu residents. The bamboo houses on stilts and thatched roofs were simple. We watched a group of older women roast rats over a fire, visited the village school and played with piglets and puppies. The women’s teeth were stained black from chewing beetle nuts which provides a similar buz to chewing tobacco. 

Ban Nalan Village




Later, we pile into deflating kayaks and began to paddle down the Nam Ha River. We stopped a second village, Namkoy , which was a Chinese minority group. The women wore handmade indigo dyed dresses. As we arrived, they were making bamboo paper for the school by pouring bamboo pulp onto large flat bamboo trays to dry. We watched a pet monkey entertain himself while being leashed to a villager’s home. 

Mr. Loeb back in the classroom


We continued paddling down river through easy but exciting “rapids”. While paddling, we began to smell something terrible, then we saw a “barking deer” carcus floating in the water. Although illegal to hunt in the protected area this animal was shot and ran to the river before dying. Our guide schlepted the deer onto the back of his kayak and continued to paddle. When we stopped for lunch we returned to the kayaks to a skinned deer, broken down into plastic bags.

Steaming Sticky Rice

We returned to Luang Nam Tha and enjoyed dinner at the night market with our new French friends. We kindly declined the many opium offers we received and packed as we’d enter Thailand the next day!