The train finally showed up in Mandalay. We climbed into our sleeper car to settle in for the estimated 24-hours to Myitkyina and met our roommates: Kyaw Lay and friends. Kyaw Lay (“Jo Lee”) introduced himself as an employee of Myanmar Railways and then asked if it was alright for his 2 friends to share the 4-person room with me and Pui all the way to Myitkyina. I said OK, but the conductor soon came around and there was much heated discussion (in Burmese, of course) about it. In the end, Pui and I shared the room with just Kyaw Lay for most of the time.
Somewhere along the way we had realized that due to all the delays, we would not have enough time to visit Myitkyina and so we had better get off the train at Katha instead; only, the train doesn’t stop directly at Katha…
Between studying my large fold-out map and trying to ask Kyaw Lay about how to get there, we finally figured out that we have to get off the train at Naba. Of course we figured this out just after we rolled past Naba. An hour later, we disembarked at Mohyin and met a Belgian traveler who had made the same mistake about 6 hours earlier and was still stuck in Mohyin. At first, we were told by everyone that we must wait for the train running the other way to return us to Naba where we would then need to take a pick-up to Katha. No one could tell us how long it would take. Then, suddenly, we were offered the option of taking a K1500 bus that was to leave in an hour and arrive in Katha after 6 hours on the road. All 3 of us went for it. The “bus” turned out to be a local truck full of cabbage and lots of people - our “seat” was a small spot on the roof above the driver - but it did arrive in Katha just after sundown, as promised.
After a quick survey of the hotel options (3 identical hotels right next to eachother: shared bathrooms with no running water, limited electricity) we took a room and walked around a bit. Although larger than I had expected, Katha is a small town on the Ayayerwaddy river that became an important spot for teak wood production during the British occupation. Its small claim to fame among travelers is that it was once the home of a young Eric Blair, AKA George Orwell, and is the setting of his book Burmese Days. Although the book is fictional, its descriptions of Katha (then known as Kyauktada) are accurate. So accurate, in fact, that in order to release the book for the first time in England, the name of the town had to be changed to Mandalay and some details altered. Copies of Burmese Days (Orwell’s other two famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm are curiously banned in Myanmar) are sold all along the tourist trail in Myanmar and I had just finished reading it myself, as well as a book I had brought along called Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin - a recent travelogue in which the author recounts a year spent retracing the footsteps of George Orwell in Burma. Apart from this disctinction, Katha is just another pleasant river town - a nice stop to break up the long boat ride between Myitkyina and Mandalay.
Because of Pui’s schedule, needed to start the long journey back to Yangon as soon as we arrived in Katha. The plan was to take the 2-day boat down to Mandalay, so first thing in the morning we hit the local IWT (Inland Water Transport) office. Boat schedules in Myanmar, like so much else, are utterly unpredictable. The IWT guy informed us that the boat would leave tomorrow. In the late afternoon, at whatever o’clock. Since the only other feasible option for getting back to Mandalay (aside from repeating the 24-hour train journey) was the bus, we chose to take the risk of assuming a very tight schedule by waiting another day for the boat…
With an extra day and a half left to kill, we took to exploring the town. We hired a horse-cart for the afternoon to take us around the main sights in the area: several pagodas, temples, a golf course and a large orphanage. At the orphanage we were given a brief tour - and received celebrity-level attention from the kids - then were invited to kneel down before the headmaster and receive a bunch of bananas in return for our small cash donation. We spent the remainder of our time wandering about, and at one point befriended a funny local character named U Than Wein who took us around to some of the old landmarks mentioned in Burmese Days (including the old European Club which features a tennis court still in use by some locals). Than Wein explained that he is the son of the former police chief of Katha - quite interesting because that was Orwell’s title during the British days (he was stationed in Katha for the end of his service in Burma). Our conversion stumbled along in broken English, but I was able to figure out that Than Wein’s father would have been the first Burmese police chief of Katha after England pulled out of the country!
The boat finally did arrive and we opted for the much more expensive cabin-class ticket rather than freeze during the cold nights on the deck. It turned out to be a good choice. The 2-day trip down the river was scenic and peaceful, punctuated by a few frenzied stops at small villages along the way. The boat sat anchored during the nights apparently because the water level is too low to risk becoming stuck on an unseen sandbar in the dark.