After 11 days in Cambodia it was time to say goodbye and continue on our travels. I had enjoyed my time in Cambodia, learning about the culture and meeting the wonderful Khmer people, but I was also more than ready to make a new acquaintance; Myanmar (or Burma, depending on your taste).
The road (flight) to Mandalay
We were driven to the airport in another vintage Mercedes courtesy of Viroth’s and then we were off, with Bangkok Airways to Mandalay via Bangkok. The flights were comfortable and more or less on time and we arrived in Mandalay late evening. Before even leaving the airport I discovered a peculiarity about this new country…the immigrations officer actually smiled at me and laughed when I made a joke! Now for those of you who have traveled in SE Asia, you will know this is highly unusual, so I already had a good feeling about Myanmar!
Ned Kelly Hotel and Irish Pub
Upon clearing customs we headed straight to the phone shop in arrivals to buy new sim-cards and the proceeded to find a taxi and head towards our intended hotel, the exotic sounding Ned Kelly Hotel and Irish Pub! 😉
Mandalay is a busy city and like most other SE Asian cities I have experienced, it is teeming with cars, scooters and tuk tuks. There are always differences from city to city though. For one thing Mandalay has no nightlife. Not at the moment anyway. This was according to our guide the next day, due to the fact that a local lady had been killed while drunk driving and as a result the authorities had closed down all the nightclubs. Also in our time in Mandalay we got a lot of attention from the locals. There was a lot of waving, honking and shouting…but all with huge smiles.
As the airport is roughly 60 kms from Mandalay centre, the drive took a while but upon arriving we were able to enjoy an ice-cold Guinness on the rooftop terrace of the hotel, so we were pretty happy. We couldn’t however have too many beers that night as we were to be picked up at 7 am the next morning for a very special Mandalay adventure!
7 am, we were up and ready to go. We were going on a day trip on the Irrawaddy River to see the elusive Irrawaddy Dolphins. These dolphins are special in several ways. First of all their appearance is quite unique. They have a totally oval head with a flexible neck and quite resemble swimming penises :-p … Secondly the Irrawaddy dolphins north of Mandalay have been trained for years to assist local fishermen in their work. The dolphins are trained to round up schools of fish close to the fishing boat and then signal with a tail fin splash, when the fish are rounded up. The fisherman then throws in a circular net with lead weights in the spot designated by the dolphins. When the fisherman retrieves the net and it’s catch, the dolphins then snap up the fish that elude capture by the net. A win/win situation for fisherman and dolphin!
We had booked the tour with Living Irrawaddy (www.burmadolphins.com), the only tour company that will take you to see the cooperative fishing between the dolphins and fishermen. Arriving at our boat we realized we were the only people to be going on the tour that day and our guide, Chit explained that on any given day they will only take up to 6 people to see the dolphins as they don’t want to stress the animals in any way. Also they would not guarantee that we would even see dolphins as they were becoming increasingly elusive as a result of more and more pollution, electric fishing and boat traffic. Living Irrawaddy however were doing everything they could to sustain not only the dolphins themselves but also the age-old tradition of cooperative fishing.
We sailed down the Irrawaddy River North of Mandalay for 4 glorious hours. Watching the fishermen and local traders awaken and take to the river ways, and marveling in the skill of our captain whom navigated invisible sandbanks and incredibly low tides with skill. Incidentally the boat was family owned and leased to the tour company. The father of the family was captain, the mother served fresh fruit and beverages and grandpa stayed below taking care of the baby. The family lived on the boat 24/7 and baby was even born aboard the ship 5 months ago! While none of the family spoke English we still communicated with signs and sounds and the cute baby girl brought us all together in absolute adoration!
After a tasty lunch prepared by local villagers and brought freshly-made to our boat, it was time to seek out the dolphins. Two fishing boats arrived to pick us up. One was for Thomas and I to sit in and the other was going to fish with the dolphins. Our tour guides equipped us with life vests and hats and off we went!
We sailed on the tiny fishing boats for at least an hour. Always screening the horizon for signs of the dolphins (and in my case sneaking in a little nap).
And finally! There they were! Cresting the water first in front of us, and then to all sides! They were beautiful! After some calling and signaling from the fishermen we were so lucky to see the dolphins doing exactly what they were trained to. They circled the fishing boat in ever smaller circles, finally giving the fisherman the unmistakeable signal of a tail splash and then swimming away to repeat it all further down the river. We even saw a mother teaching her calf the technique.
We sat silently in the little boat, craning our necks to see as much of the clever animals as possible and just enjoying every second of the experience! It was absolutely amazing to see this teamwork between humans and animals and I feel forever blessed to have witnessed it! The fishing continued for about an hour before it was time to return to our boat for the ride back to Mandalay! We were absolutely exhausted and in bed once again very early as we were leaving for Bagan the very next day.
Below is a video of our dolphin encounter: