The Malikha-2, with her long sleek hull and gleaming white superstructure, looks conspicuously out of place among the motley fleet of rusty barges and workboats tied up at the Mandalay waterfront. Located near the midpoint of navigation on the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River, Mandalay is a major port of call for boats traveling in both directions, north from the rice fields of the river's vast delta and south from the teak forests and gem mines of the northern hill country. The river is the lifeblood of Myanmar's economy, a vital transportation corridor that extends from the Adaman Sea almost the entire length of the country. But ever since the first settlers built their villages on the banks of the river more than 2,000 years ago the Ayeyarwaddy and the rich alluvial soil of its floodplain and delta have nurtured a succession of pre-Myanmar cultures. And of these the ancient city of Bagan is both the most fascinating and the most bizarre.
Most boats take two days to make the 190 km trip down river from Mandalay to Bagan but the Malikha-2, which was built specifically for the tourist trade and designed for speed, can do it in a mere seven hours. With the help of a makeshift handrail (a bamboo pole held at each end by crew members) we negotiated a teetering plank from the riverbank onto the boat and made our way up to the observation deck. Coffee and a boxed breakfast were waiting and with three air-conditioned cabins as well as comfortable wicker chairs on the upper deck the Malikha-2 is a first class vessel.
I was still nursing my morning coffee as we cruised past temple-studded Mandalay Hill and slid under the city's two bridges. Beyond the bridges, the countryside is rural with little sign of habitation and, except for a few tiny skiffs the river itself is quiet. We pass a few sleepy villages where people and cattle are resting in the shade of thatched dwellings. The occasional golden dome of a stupa and a few scrub-covered hills are all that break the flat monotony of the floodplain. I asked one of the crew, who spoke some English, about the stupas, which are scattered across the countryside.
"In the Buddhist faith," he tells me, "it is important to earn merit for a good afterlife, and building a stupa or a temple earns a lot of merit." I'm not sure I followed all the nuances of his explanation but it seems that earning merit is rather like saving air-mile points for that final journey - the amount you get depends what on you spend to earn it - a bit of merit for feeding a monk, more for donating to a monastery and a really big whack of merit for building a religious structure. In which case King Anawrahta and the folks who built Bagan must have had one hell of a ride into the hereafter.