River Journeys in Asia
There are numerous fans of river cruising and I have recently joined their ranks. My previous interactions with riverways were exciting, yet restricted to half-day adventures. This changed when I sailed along the Brahmaputra River for a week in April 2016.
My ship, the M.V. Mahabaahu was waiting in the village of Neamati Ghat forty minutes from the small Jorhat airport in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. A winding tree-lined road led to the river’s edge. Some year earlier I had crossed the Brahmaputra by bridge and it only took two minutes. Now the steely grey river felt immense and powerful, and I connected to it on an emotional level. This revered expanse of water, whose name means "son of Brahma", originates at sacred Mt. Kailash, Tibet, and flows for 2900 kilometers to empty into the Bay of Bengal at Bangladesh.
Two moments in time led me to this place. One was a screening of Jean Renoir’s 1951 movie The River, and the other, a meeting with Ship’s owner Sanjay Basu during his visit to British Columbia. He showed me images of the islands, shorelines, cultures and wildlife of areas where no major roads reach. I convinced eight other travelers to join me.
It is late afternoon when we board and she will remain in dock for the night brings constant change to the islands and channels creating dangers that prohibit navigation. I am happy to stay back, as a pre-dawn walk the next morning allows sightings of diverse birdlife and a glimpse of rural living for a handful of families who cultivate small family plots along the banks. Those who do not walk, start the day with Yoga before we cast off.
We sail to Majuli Island, a large river island where a cross section of modern and ancient Assamese cultures co-exist. We observe daily rituals and adorations at the monastery, watch dances performed to the rhythms of drums and smell the fragrance of flowering plants in the air. On another spot along the river we happen upon dancers from nearby tea plantations who are competing in casual authenticity. We see varieties in the traditional dress of the Assamese dance groups distinguishing communities and plantations.
Tea culture is prevalent, for it was in Assam back in 1823 that a wild tea plant was discovered. Praises of its properties spread quickly, with cultivation and processing starting a decade later. On one of our morning excursions, we jump into jeeps to head into the highlands and visit one of the tea estates. A group of women are plucking the young buds along the picturesque slopes, and in another area we see the drying and processing. Etched forever in my memory will be a delicious open-air lunch and sipping on the local brew which can be described as strong, pure, and flavourful.
Every half day brings another shore excursion, and more insight into the cultures who have woven their existence into the ebb and flow of the river. A Jute mill whose history is older than any of its visitors captivates me and provides new appreciation for fibre packaging. A side trip is made to Sibsagar, the ancient city of the Ahom Kings where a handful of well-preserved ruins include a Palace, and an entertainment complex for the Ahom Royals and their guests.
Another landing delivers us to a Mishing village where raised platform houses provide security during rising water levels as well as co-habitation for domesticated livestock beneath. The Mishing survive by hunting, fishing and income from their weavings. We are greeted by women showing off their Muga raw silk saris, although a bounty of less authentic cloth from further afield has infiltrated the impromptu marketplace that has quickly arisen as we disembark.
The journey includes two days navigating the river banks on the edge of Kaziranga National Park. As we near Eastern ranges of the park, someone spots a one-horned rhinoceros in the grasses. We reach a tributary (Dhansiri) and take two small motor boats to safari in the narrower channels leading into the park. The wildlife populations have increased here in recent years owing in large part to the conservation efforts to lift rhinoceros and tiger populations, and in doing so protect habitat for wild boar, water buffalo, Asian elephants, swamp deer, and hog deer. By boat, elephant, and jeep, with the exception of the Bengal tiger, we see all of them.
While the off-ship activities are what attracted me to the cruise, it is the on-board activities that I hadn’t realized would be so enjoyable. This was no ordinary bed for the night, but rather an ultra-comfortable, twenty-three cabin (half with balconies) expedition water hotel with scrumptious dining, a large sun deck and an Ayurveda Spa in the lower level. And in the evenings there were social activities that built community among the guests, most notably a deserted island bonfire, BBQ and cocktail under an Assamese night sky. So many hours calmed by the quiet hum of the engine as the ship passed areas of undisturbed lands, floating vegetational rafts, the odd river dolphin, and a handful of rivercraft delivering people and goods.
My week on the Brahmaputra electrified a new passion in me for river ways of life. So much so that this year’s vacation included an overnight river cruise on Myanmar’s Ayerwaddy River between Mandalay and Bagan. I also keep a wish list of future rivers trips.
Some of the Great Waterways of Asia
AYERWADDY aka IRRAWADDY, Myanmar (2 – 7 days)
MEKONG, Laos – Cambodia – Vietnam (2 – 7 days)
YANGTZE, China (3 – 5 days)
BRAHMAPUTRA, India (5 – 7 days)
CHINDWIN, Myanmar (7 days)