Sailing the Irrawaddy on the Spacious Anawrahta

A Royal Suite on Anawrahta named after a famous Burmese monarch — Kyansitta. The suite displays elaborate woodcarvings, works of Burmese art and handmade artefacts.

The Anawrahta was berthed on the Irrawaddy River just outside the city of Mandalay. The white rails and gleaming brass of this 214-foot replica of a colonial paddle steamer sparkled in the sun, promising all modern comforts and the elegance and atmosphere of bygone days. The ship is the newest addition to the fleet of Heritage Line, a privately owned Vietnamese company that liaises throughout Southeast Asia under one umbrella with its sister companies, Trails of Indochina and Indotrek. 

Having flown into Mandalay from Yangon and then spending two days visiting historic sites and admiring the skills of local craftsmen, it was exciting to finally board the ship. Guests staying in the former capital will like the Mandalay Hill Resort, which has sumptuous rooms, an executive floor and is next to a private 18-hole golf course. Another popular choice could be the Hotel by the Red Canal, which is closer to many of the city’s attractions and very cozy with 26 rooms showcasing local folklore.

Smiling staff welcomed passengers onboard the Anawrahta with perfumed garlands and cool hand towels and escorted us to the Mandalay Lounge, where we met the Cruise General Manager Min Bahardu ([email protected]; 011-95-979-276-203). Here we were checked-in and given keys to the 16 staterooms and seven suites.

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Our Deluxe stateroom on the Upper Deck was very spacious — the boat has the largest cabins and the highest staff to guest ratio on Myanmar’s rivers — with a king-size bed, ample wardrobes and a comfortable daybed under a picture window. But the real surprise came when we drew back the curtains and found a large verandah with two comfortable rattan colonial-style lounging chairs and a small table. Later, we discovered that all the staterooms have the same verandahs. The two Royal Suites have 312-square-foot terraces with private Jacuzzis. Note: Children over 10 are accepted in parents’ cabins in a separate bed.

The Sun Deck on the top level has a large Jacuzzi pool and cushioned rattan sun loungers under elegant canopies.

Guests who like more space should book one of the three 517-square-foot Junior Suites with both showers and bathtubs. For honeymooners, our choice would be the Chindwin or Yangon Executive Suites that are spread over 635 square feet of space, and come with bathtubs and a comfortable seating area. VIPs will want one of the two Royal Suites on the Terrace Deck with private butlers and complimentary spa service. These are at the bow and have separate night and living areas, Burmese handcrafted fittings and artwork, and a Jacuzzi on the XL terrace.

In the staterooms, the glowing, carved woodwork; spice-colored ethnic-inspired fabrics; and the attention to detail, like the vintage rotary dial phone and the brass telescope on the bed, made us feel like adventurers, but the well-appointed bathroom with its large rainshower and marble fittings was made for modern comfort. Note: There is no TV on board, and while Wi-Fi is available in the Mandalay Lounge and the Kipling Bar, it can be sporadic depending on the 3G coverage on the river. 

Cruise bookings can be made through the Yangon office (011-951-246-098). For VIP enquiries, contact Su Mon Oo ([email protected]; 011-951-249-190), general manager of Heritage Line in Myanmar. Cruises operate from July to April, ranging from five to seven, eight and 12 days, and offer a variety of explorations and excursions on both the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers. Su recommends booking at least three months in advance and suggests looking out for the upcoming gourmet, music and wellness theme cruises.

Fitness freaks will like the mini-gym with a treadmill and cyclette. The Thazin Spa has a single and couples’ massage room, an area for beauty treatments and a steam room. Spa leader Nang suggested the 100-minute Detox Package, which consists of a Bamboo body scrub and an Aromatherapy massage, is really refreshing and relaxing.

A Junior Suite on Anawrahta. There are three such suites, each with 517 square feet of space.

The Anawrahta was headed upriver on the 12-day “Impressive Gorges” cruise with stops at remote villages, colonial towns and landmarks, such as the world’s largest unfinished brick pagoda at Mingun, and one-of-a-kind experiences like a ride on an old British railroad and a visit to a teak forest with working elephants.

The adventure started with lunch in the Hintha Hall restaurant and a great selection of hot and cold dishes. For the entire journey, Chef Nay Lin Tun (011-959-7927-6203) and his team turned out five-star cuisine. Alongside international favorites, such as Osso Buco, Short Ribs and Salmon, local specialties included aromatic curries, Mohinga catfish soup (the national dish), and spicy glass-noodle salads. Laphet Thoke, a delicious, crunchy salad of pickled tealeaves, peanuts, beans, onions, toasted sesame seeds and dried shrimp was such a hit that guests requested it over and over again.

During the hours of navigation it was delightful to relax on the stateroom daybed and see golden pagodas and ancient temples peeping out of the tropical jungle or perched on hilltops. Another great vantage point was the top-level Sun Deck with its large Jacuzzi pool and cushioned rattan sun loungers under elegant canopies.

For the daily excursions, it was often possible to step ashore, but at other times the tender boat ferried guests to land in villages like Kyaung Myaung, where huge earthenware pots are skillfully thrown and fired, and Tangaung, a town with the shrine of a famous Nat spirit where we happened to see a colorful wedding party. Katha, a small colonial outpost, was where George Orwell lived for five years as a British police officer, finding inspiration for his famous novel “Burmese Days.” One handsome old teak house, the former home of the British commissioner, is now a small museum with mementoes of those days. Nice Touch: In the grounds of the museum, Anawrahta’s staff served snacks and chilled champagne, which were greatly appreciated as the sun was very hot by midday. 

The Hintha Hall Restaurant not only serves international favorites, but also introduces guests to local specialties.

The final stop upriver was the town of Bhamo, which was once a starting point of the old Silk Road, the caravan trail that led from Venice to China, and was discovered by Marco Polo in the 13th century. In the colorful market, guests bought local fabrics and lacquer ware and mingled with Kachin, Lisu and Shan ethnic minorities wearing their colorful traditional costumes.

While returning downriver, on the night of the October super moon, dinner was served on the Pool Deck. It was the celebration of Thadingyut or the Festival of Lights, the end of the Buddhist Lent. Upriver the crew set light to thousands of small flames in folded banana leaves that floated past, creating a magical spectacle as we enjoyed the barbeque dinner.

In the evenings, the guides gave interesting talks on subjects as diverse as religion, traditions and how to prepare Shan noodles. One night there was a magic show and the crew also put on great entertainment with traditional songs and dances. After a last stop to admire the U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest and oldest teakwood bridge, the Anawrahta docked at Bagan, giving guests two days to explore this spectacular site, where many opted for early-morning hot-air balloon rides over the valley’s 2,200 ancient temples.

Bagan warrants at least two or three nights. The temple area is extensive, but there are many hotels around the nucleus of Old Bagan, like the boutique [email protected] Gate, which has an old-world atmosphere and Burmese décor. The rooms with secluded gardens are suited for post-temple chilling out as is the swimming pool, which is guarded by cute stone elephants, and there is 24-hour butler service. For something really stately, the Aureum Palace Hotel has 72 beautiful teak-wood villas and 42 Deluxe Rooms scattered around 27 acres of manicured tropical gardens, making you feel you have stepped back in time into a royal compound.

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