Nigel Tisdall, The Daily Telegraph, August 22, 2013
It takes just one, famous, stupa-fying view to make me understand why everyone is now heading for Burma. Gazing across the tea-coloured waters of the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay, I spy the 37 sacred hills of Sagaing crowned with hundreds of shrines, pagodas and monasteries that have been arising here since the early 14th century. Their ornate roofs and gleaming spires soar above the trees in a lustrous cavalcade of golden pimples, epitomising the storybook charm of this most welcoming of Buddhist nations.
Being new to both Burma and the leisured pace of river cruising, I’m impressed by this panoramic opening shot as I embark for a 1,024-mile adventure that will see us sail up the broad, brown tentacle of the little-visited Chindwin River, which winds close to the country’s north-western border, then return to behold another of Burma’s great set pieces, the temple-studded plains of Bagan.
The Chindwin River
Within an hour of casting off, I feel as if I’ve boarded a luxury spaceship journeying back to the Middle Ages. Elegant waitresses in red uniforms serve refreshing strawberry and cucumber drinks as we attune to a landscape lifted straight from a willow-pattern plate. Eighty per cent of Burmese people still live an agrarian lifestyle, and the river-hugging world we discover beyond its cities seems barely brushed by the modern era. Yes, locals use mobile phones and there are garish adverts for Lucky Cow creamer, but the predominant images are of water buffalo wallowing in the mud, teams of oxen churning the fields, and fishermen in conical hats floating by in wooden canoes powered by colourful sails sewn from old sheets.
My waterborne home for the next 11 nights is the Orcaella, a four-deck river cruiser launched last month by Orient-Express. It is named after the small, beakless dolphins that inhabit the rivers of southern Asia, but the nearest sighting I get is a picture shown in an onboard lecture, which gives the impression they look like well-cooked sausages with fins.
With just 25 cabins and a contemporary design, the Orcaella has been purpose-built to make long and exploratory voyages into the country’s remoter parts. My fellow passengers are an affable mix of Australians, Americans and Europeans with an age range from 13 to 90. Many are first-timers keen to catch a glimpse of this hot-list country before it gets more developed, while others are veterans of Orient-Express’s larger and more traditional sister river cruiser, the 43-cabin Road to Mandalay, which has been offering voyages on the Irrawaddy since 1997.
Orcaella, a four-deck river cruiser
“It looks like a hospital ship,” one old hand opines, and there are early grumbles about slow service and a lack of atmosphere. There’s no faulting the Orcaella’s spirit of adventure, though, or the comfort of its cabins, which are kitted out with floor-to-ceiling windows, rain showers and Bulgari toiletries. While those in the deluxe category are compact, the 15 state rooms offer a chance to watch Burma roll by in supreme style.
I find it hard to love the décor of the bar and lounge, which has chunky red velvet sofas and monumental stools more appropriate to a Hong Kong night spot, but we all appreciate the spacious sun deck with its wooden loungers and 20ft swimming pool.
Other treats include a spa and fitness centre (both set, unusually, on the upper deck), while the 54-strong, mostly Burmese crew includes a cheery doctor who accompanies us for the entire voyage, with no charge for consultations.
As Somerset Maugham noted when he sailed to Bagan in 1922, “river travelling is monotonous and soothing”. A voyage aboard the Orcaella is undoubtedly the latter, with the engines so quiet at times I hardly notice we are leaving port. This is a glide more than a cruise, and any fears of boredom are sent packing by an engaging programme of excursions, lectures and entertainments.
Orcaella's contemporary design cabins
I have prepared for pagoda overload, but our almost daily ventures ashore are pleasantly varied. We visit the colossal Bodhi Tataung Buddha near Monywa, which rises to 424ft, and ride in the back of construction lorries to reach a jungle camp near Mawlaik where elephants learn to haul logs. Heavy rain turns an 18‑mile drive to Kalay into a bumpy 90‑minute ordeal, while in Homalin, our northernmost port of call, a rice wine-laced encounter with the Naga community ends up in a lively conga.
Every excursion is meticulously planned by ground staff sporting walkie-talkies and red shirts emblazoned with “Logistics”, as if we are part of some grand presidential visit. Foreign tourists are still a novelty in this region, and the warm welcome we get at each stop is touching. Most memorable is an invitation to watch five boys aged from six to 10 being prepared for monastic education in Moktaw. As I sit among the proud mums 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.
After such heartfelt encounters, which invariably leave us hot, sweaty and muddy, it is bliss to return to the cool, calm and spotless cocoon of the Orcaella, with its cold towels, delicious welcome-back drinks and smiling crew offering to clean the dirt from your shoes. A luxury river cruise is surely the most stress-free way to tour a tropical destination now emerging from decades of repression and isolation. Burma has a shortage of top-class hotels, and our excursions provide proof enough that travelling on its soggy, potholed roads aboard “best-available” buses can be wearying. Special permission is also required to visit a sensitive frontier region like this, with the Indian border just 30 miles away at some points.
While our trips ashore offer insightful adventures, they are marred by the variable quality of our Burmese guides, the withdrawn attitude of our lecturers and a general paucity of information about what we are visiting. A low point comes when one guide informs me that “a cow is a useful animal”, but hopefully a seasoned Burma operator like Orient-Express will address this. Besides, in my view the deepest joy of a cruise like this comes from simply watching riverbank life unfold. “Who is entertaining who?” quips our sparkiest guide, Ko Win Myint, as we find a welcoming committee of onlookers awaiting us at every port, as eager to see us as we are them. One minute we are among burgundy-robed monks, giggling schoolchildren and immigration officials in immaculate white uniforms. The next we are alone with the glistening paddy fields, or lost in the mysteries of the forest as a lonely stupa catches the sunlight like a shiny gold tooth.
All this beauty is not good for the digestion, as meal times frequently present me with an inner tussle between grabbing the camera and tucking into the superb and predominantly Asian dishes prepared by our highly talented Thai chef, Bann Nawisamphan. Her menus introduce us to the lightly spiced flavours of Burma – the fish soup mohinga, an intriguing pennywort salad, grilled prawns and various sticky desserts. We sample the palatable local Red Mountain wine, and are treated to a demonstration of how to make Burmese green tea leaf salad and pork tofu soup.
The hills of Sagaing crowned with hundreds of shrines and pagodas
Bann’s finest moment comes when she cooks up a spicy storm at a barbecue held at the charmingly neglected golf club in Mawlaik. Founded in 1936, the oldest course in Burma has seen better days, and today a round of its nine holes costs a mere 500 kyats (33p). Inside the gecko-decorated clubhouse, a large sign records that the most recent hole-in-one was achieved in 1998 using a Power Big Iron No 5.
An army of Orcaella cooks and waiters descends on the club’s overgrown lawns to create one of the best pop-up restaurants I’ve ever visited. We arrive in a fleet of bright red tuk-tuks to find white, linen-covered tables laid out with candles, silverware and a feast of Asian dishes. The attention to detail is summed up in a plethora of protective polystyrene blocks diligently attached to the spikes of every yucca. As a xylophonist plays music-box tunes and the complimentary champagne flows all night, the consensus among our merry band is that it is hard to see how a high-end trip deep into backwater Burma could get much better. In the nine days I spend cruising the Chindwin, we don’t see one other tourist.
On other evenings, the entertainments include a Burmese dance performance, a longyi (sarong) cocktail party (ladies are given a splendid example to take home) and a dreamy spectacle in which a thousand red, white and gold lights are floated on the river to the sounds of classical chill.
Most romantic of all, on one night amid the dark waters near Sittaung, we let off a host of colourfully striped Shan balloons from the Orcaella’s upper deck. These are delicate, oil-drum-sized bags powered by a flaming wooden stick, which gently rise into the night sky in a magical procession. “Make a wish,” the crew whisper, and while some of us keep these secret others make loud declarations. “For the people of Burma!” cries one passenger as he dispatches his glowing parcel into the heavens.
It is a fitting thank you to an enchanting country that is now fulfilling many a traveller’s dream.
Singapore Airlines (020 8961 6993; singaporeair.com ) flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Yangon via Singapore, from £690 return. Take advantage of the airline’s Changi Transit Voucher Scheme, available till the end of the year, which gives transit passengers S$40 (£20) to spend at the airport, including for lounge access. For a taste of what’s new in the city, stay at the waterfront Fullerton Bay Hotel (0065 6333 8388, fullertonbayhotel.com ) in Marina Bay, double rooms from £330 with breakfast.
How to book
Cruises aboard Orient-Express’s Orcaella (0845 077 2222; orcaella.net ) cost from £3,270 per person for seven nights, including all meals, excursions, transfers and domestic flights. Voyages on the Chindwin run from July to September, and on the Irrawaddy from September to April.
Cazenove+loyd (020 7384 2332; cazloyd.com ) offers tailor-made river cruising packages to Burma. A 13-night escorted journey departing July 19, 2014, costs from £5,873 per person based on two sharing, including flights with Singapore Airlines, transfers, two nights at the Governor’s Residence in Yangon with a half-day sightseeing, plus 11 nights’ sailing the Chindwin from Mandalay to Bagan aboard the Orcaella. Trips on the Irrawaddy led by Robert Gordon, the former British Ambassador to Burma, are available in January 2014 and February 2015.
Add on a couple of nights in Yangon to admire the dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda and the mildewed colonial buildings from the glory days of imperial Rangoon. The Governor’s Residence (0095 122 9860; governorsresidence.com ) offers an oasis in the embassy district with a garden, pool and spa; deluxe rooms cost from £194 with breakfast.
Visas are required ( myanmarembassy.com ), along with anti-malaria medication.
Take US dollars in mint condition, binoculars (for studying riverbank life) and shoes that are easy to slip on and off in temples.
Be prepared for long periods without phone or internet access.
The River of Lost Footsteps (Faber, £9.99) and Finding George Orwell in Burma (Granta, £8.99) make rewarding onboard reading; Insight Guide: Burma (APA, £15.99) is a detailed and up-to-date guide.
GET OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
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