Fionnuala McHugh, The Daily Telegraph, May 11, 2017
Rudyard Kipling, as any Burmese guide will tell you within about a minute, never actually went to Mandalay. This was extremely wise. The city’s name is euphonious but the city’s traffic is horrendous. Nowadays, the road to – and in – Mandalay is clogged with cars, bikes, trucks and people desperately lining the edges wondering how they’re going to cross and live.
The traditional road to Mandalay, however, was really the Ayeyarwady, or Irrawaddy, river. ( Burma is full of sweet-toned places.) As visitor numbers swell it, too, is getting busier but at the moment, travelling by boat from Bagan to Mandalay is still a soothing delight.
I’ve made two recent visits. The first voyage, in the spring, for the princely sum of $30 (£23), was on a ferry that left under a half-moon at 5.30am and reached Mandalay at about 7pm. The Burmese trees rearing magnificently along the banks, and the dark shapes of skiffs on the golden water, made me wish, for the first time in my life, that I could paint.
During the final few hours, the boat ploughed busily on past hilltops glittering with pagodas, the sort of vista any traveller longs to stop off and explore.
Perhaps the river-spirits sensed such yearning because by late December – the week, as it happens, of Kipling’s 150th birthday – I was once more setting off for Mandalay on the Irrawaddy, except this time it was the maiden voyage of the Strand Cruise.
The Strand in Yangon (or Rangoon), built in 1901 and reopened last November following a full refurbishment, is one of Asia’s oldest hotels; and its ship – constructed almost opposite the hotel, in the dockyards close to the Botataung pagoda – is one of the newest on the river.
The journey took four nights (one more than Kipling’s entire stay in Burma), which gives you some indication of its leisurely progress. The other direction, downstream from Mandalay to Bagan, is a three-night cruise. Some may prefer to fly but I wouldn’t have given up an hour of that slow, slow boat, weaving its way through the Irrawaddy’s shifting sandbars. Another 19th-century writer came to mind each time I heard one of the crouched pilots – measuring the water’s depth with a red-and-white pole – Mark Twain.
This isn’t, to put it mildly, a $30 trip. There are 27 suites on board, there’s 24-hour butler service and the minute you step from the outer world’s dust, someone will dash forward with velvet flip-flops for you to wear so that your shoes can be cleaned. (You’ll spend so much time barefoot in the temples that it’s scarcely worth bothering with fancy footwear indoors or out; an expat who lives in Yangon told me it’s impossible to buy shoelaces in the city.)
The only overlap with the ferry trip, in fact, was the instruction, at our initial briefing, that used toilet paper should be placed in a bin in the bathroom. (Some passengers blenched but it’s a common request across Asia, and most small motor craft.) It was the same lovely river, of course, but now it felt accessible: the ship is so nimble, so light of herself, there was the sense we could have pulled in at any of those inviting riparian beaches, under those sandy cliffs, if the captain – who’d dressed up for the welcome briefing but wore a traditional longyi the rest of the time – took the sudden notion.
Not that he did; that effect of happy casualness has been carefully crafted. The Strand team spent much of the year preceding her launch scouting for picturesque locations along the Irrawaddy where their new ship could dock. Our first night was spent next to a village in Bagan, sufficiently close to the road for convenient tours of the temples but local enough that children splashed around in the water below us, in between selling postcards as we traipsed up and down the village path. (Myanmar, like India, is a land where tourist hawkers of every age refuse to accept the arrival of cyber communication.)
The ancient kingdom of Bagan, of course, is so spectacular it deserves longer than the morning and afternoon excursions allotted on the Strand’s itinerary, and my advice would be to spend at least another day there before (or after) the cruise and do a landlubber tour by bicycle. But it is – literally – a transport of delight to peer at, say, the Sulamani temple frescoes depicting life along the river, and then, seamlessly, sail upon it. You realise that, long ago, anonymous others, too, loved the landscape’s vast haloes of foliage, the spindly silhouettes on its waters; and those observers had the skill to paint such scenes within Sulamani’s narrow corridors.
Each day was like that: something old, something new (a taste, a sight, a smell), something local. Now, there is Wi-Fi on board; we cruised without it and the television signal was practically non-existent. My screen came to life just once during a programme entitled When Vacations Attack! (a woman was talking about her husband Ron, something suggested it wasn’t going to end well).
I switched it off, went outside, waved at the crew on a cargo-boat full of mysteriously-wrapped objects. They waved back. The sky was covered in gigantic pink whorls as if someone had gently combed it.
People’s tolerance for us sidling up to their laundry-sites or favourite bathing spots was remarkable. While the ship hove to and a spot for the gangplank was being assessed, the word usually went out, a hopeful crowd gathered, concertinas of postcards were unfolded, necklaces dangled along bare arms. At Mingun, a row of ladies as elegant as any royal escort waved the air in front of us with their sandalwood-scented fans (yours for 2,000 kyat (£1.14), bargaining essential).
Mingun has an unfinished, colossal stupa with a crack running down it from an 1839 earthquake, a huge bell and a nearby pagoda as white and tiered as a wedding cake. We dawdled about, dustily barefoot; the thought of the cosy ship close by, with its obliging staff awaiting our return, was very pleasant.
In the evening, there were drinks on a sandbank and the following day, we sailed up and down the river, nipping in and out of the best nooks at the best time of day. Just as you were thinking, “I’d like to go there” – there we pulled in and tuk-tuks or horse-drawn carts or cars appeared. The U-Bein teak bridge in the morning, the sunlit Buddhist spires of Sagaing’s monasteries in early afternoon, the long-abandoned capital of Ava (or Inn Wa, it’s like choosing between song titles) at dusk, while a skein of geese went shrieking overhead… we saw them all.
“Whackin’ white cheroots,” Alice, the Burmese lecturer, murmured, as we passed a stall selling fairly average-sized cheroots (older ladies smoke them with much panache). She was quoting Kipling’s “Mandalay” and went on, politely, to correct the poem’s inaccuracies. “You know, there are no flying fish in the Irrawaddy. And China is not across the bay.”
We thought about the 150-year-old poet for a while, as the river he never saw meandered past. But when I re-read the poem later, I understood Kipling was writing about yearning, the tug at the heart as we sail on while looking back at the marvel of the places we’ve left; and only a few weeks after this trip, I saw how at least he’d got that right.
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 73051 8098; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk ) offers a week in Burma combining a four-night The Strand Cruise with three nights’ bed and breakfast (one night at the end of the cruise) at The Strand Yangon, from £3,295 per person. The price also includes Thai Airways flights from Heathrow via Bangkok, private transfers, house drinks on board and cruise excursions.