x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Last night I dreamt of Myanmar again

A bloody history has not erased the monastic charm of Myanmar. Luxury river cruises are not available through the country that has wooed poets and philosophers alike.

The Orcaella luxury river cruise takes in the best of Burmese countryside. Photo by Matt Hind
The Orcaella luxury river cruise takes in the best of Burmese countryside. Photo by Matt Hind

Some places have names that sound instantly exotic. Zanzibar, Timbuktu, Samarkand ... and Mandalay. In 1922, when the English writer W Somerset Maugham visited Burma, (officially known as Myanmar since 1989), he noted how this word has “an independent magic” that raises the visitor’s expectations, possibly to unrealistic heights.

Flying into the former royal capital on a plane packed with travellers eager to explore this hot-list country, I can sense the excitement as we touch down in this fabled destination. Rudyard Kipling, the unofficial poet laureate of the British Empire, gave Mandalay a mighty dose of global PR when he composed his ballad of that name in 1890, which later became the popular song Road to Mandalay. Today, few people know the words, while younger travellers think it’s just another Robbie Williams hit. Meanwhile, the better-informed Burmese guides will point out that Kipling never actually came here...

The hype of history barely matters. While the city itself is modern and traffic-congested, the surrounding countryside is rich with ancient wonders gathered beside a mighty bend of the Irrawaddy River.

Gazing across its sepia waters to the 37 sacred hills of Sagaing, which lie 20 kilometres to the south-west and are crowned with hundreds of gleaming shrines, pagodas and monasteries dating from the early 14th century, it is clear that the magic of Mandalay is as potent as ever.

Since 2010, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party lifted its 15-year-long call for a boycott, it has been full speed ahead for Burmese tourism. The good news is that this enchanting country is worth your time and money, but demand is so strong that prices are almost double what you might pay for a comparable luxury tour of, say, neighbouring Laos. There is a shortage of top-class hotels and expert guides, and travelling on Mandalay’s muddy, potholed roads aboard “best-available” buses can be a wearying business.

The smart solution to this has been to hit the water.

River cruising has traditionally been the most preferable and romantic way to savour and explore this huge country, an experience pioneered at the top end by Orient-Express. Best known for its nostalgic train journeys, the London-based company has been offering well-heeled travellers five-star voyages on the Irrawaddy since 1997, sailing aboard a 43-cabin vessel originally built to cruise the Rhine then subsequently renamed as, well, I never, Road to Mandalay. Last July, to meet the demands of new passengers, along with those of old ones, who wanted to see more of Burma, a smaller, 25-cabin river cruise ship was launched, which is specifically designed to sail up the less-visited Chindwin River.

Named after the small, beak-less dolphins that inhabit the rivers of southern Asia, Orcaella is merely the first in a fleet of new, upscale ships that will be cruising the rivers of Burma by the end of this year. Custom-built in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), it sets a high benchmark for its rivals with four decks of serene comforts including a sun terrace, six-metre swimming pool, one-room spa, fitness centre and plush cabins featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, rain showers and Bulgari toiletries. Service levels are high with a 54-strong crew, including an on-board doctor and a talented Thai chef, who cooks up tasty soups, salads and curries that introduce us to the lightly spiced cuisine of Burma. Following behind Orcaella is a 32-metre support tender with a jovial crew sporting red shirts emblazoned with “Logistics”. This is used to assist with the almost-daily excursions ashore that are an important feature of our 11-night, 1,647-kilometre cruise.

“It’s like sailing up a muddy creek in Buckingham Palace,” a fellow passenger suggests. My companions are an affable mix of Australians, Americans and Europeans with an age range from 13 to 91. We get on well, perhaps because, unlike on some ocean-going cruises, we are all here to look and learn rather than merely relax and gorge. Our English-speaking guides are of variable quality, and there are lectures on subjects ranging from modern Burmese fiction to herbal medicine. It pays to do some background reading in order to get the most from the many visits to Buddhist places of worship. Had I not read about it, for example, our guide wouldn’t have thought to take us to the extraordinary orange pavilion at the Thanboddhay temple, near Monywa, which was erected by the two Chinese brothers who made a fortune from the body rub Tiger Balm, which was created by their father in Rangoon in the 1870s. Adorned with snarling tigers and statues of the sons dressed in suits and ties, it makes a refreshing change from the deluge of Buddha images, from the colossal to the myriad, that are a prominent feature of our daily sightseeing.

Flowing through north-west Burma, the Chindwin River is narrower and shallower than the more popular Irrawaddy that it meets near Myingyan, which means you see more riverbank life. Fishermen in conical hats drift by in wooden canoes with colourful sails sewn from old sheets. Teams of oxen plough the fields, water buffalo wallow in the mud. Giggling schoolchildren wave, burgundy-robed monks saunter through the paddy fields, a gilded stupa catches flame in the evening sunlight. Burma is an agrarian country, economically backward but spiritually rich, and, at times, it feels as if I have voyaged back to the Middle Ages.

We feel privileged to be travelling in these remote waters, which are only navigable in the summer months. Special permission is required to visit such a sensitive frontier region, with the Indian border just 50km away at some points, and during our entire voyage on the Chindwin, I don’t see one other tourist.

Our trips ashore have the air of presidential visits, with a supporting posse of Orcaella staff following us through the teak-built villages armed with umbrellas, walkie-talkies, wet wipes and bottles of chilled water. But we are not cocooned, and the Burmese are as keen to take pictures of and engage with us, as we are of them. We stop at markets to sample snacks of deep-fried gourd and buy intricately woven baskets, chat with monks and admire young boys playing chinlone, a sport that is like keepie-uppie and played with a rattan ball.

And there are adventures, too. At Mawlaik, we ride standing up in the back of construction trucks to reach a jungle camp where elephants are taught to haul logs, and enjoy an evening barbecue at its charmingly neglected golf club, founded in 1936. Today, a round of nine holes costs a mere 500 Burmese kyats (Dh1.86). We visit schools to donate exercise books and give alms to parading monks, but, for many, the most memorable encounter is watching five boys, between the ages of six and 10, being prepared for monastic education in Moktaw. As we sit among the proud mothers watching their nervous sons have their heads shaved, the mixed emotions rippling around the village hall are like the first day of term at any primary school in the world.

Back on board, our entertainment includes Burmese dance performances, a longyi (sarong) cocktail party (ladies are given a fine example to take home) and an entrancing spectacle in which a host of colourfully striped Shan balloons (oil-drum-sized bags powered by a flaming wooden stick) are sent off into the starry sky from Orcaella’s upper deck as we sail through the warm night air.

The most northerly point up the Chindwin River we can venture is Homalin, close to the mountainous homelands of the Naga tribes. We are invited to meet some community members to taste their traditional dishes served on banana leaves, watch spirited dances that appear to celebrate the joy of hoeing and purchase their trademark bright-red, handwoven textiles. It’s a lively encounter full of laughter and merriment, and nothing like the autopilot folklore shows common in more established tourist destinations.

Afterwards, as the crew prepare for the long voyage downstream, I notice a sign in English on the quayside that reads: “Warmly welcome and take care of tourists”. It’s hard to tell if this is advice for the townsfolk, or just a poorly phrased greeting to visitors, but it undoubtedly reflects how we’ve been treated in Burma. After countless dreamy days lost on the Chindwin, being enchanted, educated and cosseted, and with zero contact with the outside world, I am reluctant to return to “normal” life, with its tiresome routines, annoying bills and daily blizzard of emails. As Maugham shrewdly observed: “When a traveller sets out, the one person he must leave behind is himself.” Drifting along the rivers of Burma – so calm, so picturesque – you can certainly do that.