Myanmar river cruise
Author: Rob Ingram
Photography: Alicia Taylor
We're at the big Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, and this is just the beginning of our pagoda pilgrimage. Myanmar is the land of pagodas. Pagodas will be our lasting impressions of the country formerly known as Burma. Golden pagodas and leaden poverty. Most people subsist on an average annual income of less than $250. All of the country's Buddhists, who comprise 90 per cent of the population, aspire to one day visit Shwedagon, the Golden Pagoda, gilded with gold plates and crowned with 5448 diamonds - one weighing 72 carats - and 2317 rubies. For all its charm and stunning beauty, the country's inability to distribute its wealth remains confronting for a traveller.
Visiting Myanmar no longer poses the ethical dilemma it did when everyone's favourite Burmese national Aung San Suu Kyi declared 15 years ago, "Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later. Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime." The first significant step in the transition from military rule to civilian democracy occurred five years ago when a nominally civilian government was introduced, albeit with a quarter of the seats in both parliamentary chambers reserved for the military. The first general election since will be held this month. Rudyard Kipling may have been seduced by "them spicy garlic smells" on the road to Mandalay in 1890, but there's still more than a whiff of totalitarianism in the breeze today.
Colonial area near Maha Bandula Park, Yangon.
The government is led by President Thein Sein, who served as a general and then prime minister under the military junta. Politics are not openly discussed in Myanmar, though there are undercurrents even a casual observer will notice. The screensaver on the video monitor in our tourist bus is a hero shot of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Obama posing cosily together. Many Burmese people refer to Aung San Suu Kyi as "our leader".
While UNICEF reminds the government that its education and health care expenditure is "strikingly low" - its combined total is about 2.3 per cent of GDP (as opposed to the military's 29 per cent) - we have more big monuments to see.
We see the huge 71-metre-long reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, the big bell-shaped Sule Pagoda in the heart of Yangon, and the largest lacquer Buddha image at Mann Pagoda. But my personal favourite is U Min Thone Sae Pagoda's psychedelic light-show Buddha, which became known to our party as "Disco Buddha". Disco Buddha sits blissed out in front of an ornately mirrored backdrop, which prismatically breaks up and scatters laser and LED light beams. This allows the viewer pulsating interaction with a Buddha who manages to inject a little Saturday Night Fever into the true nature of reality.
There is no separating Buddhist landmarks from the Myanmar tourism experience. It's one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world - a land studded with spectacular pagodas, monasteries, temples and stupas. Stupas are the most common Buddhist monuments, hemispherical structures representing the shape of Buddha in meditation posture.
Between the 11th and 13th centuries, at the height of the then-named Pagan Kingdom that unified all the regions that would later constitute Myanmar, more than 10,000 stupas, pagodas and monasteries were built on 11,000 hectares of what is now the Bagan Plain. More than 2000 remain, and so a new word enters our lexicon - stupa-fying.
Myanmar is undergoing an extraordinary tourism boom, admittedly from a low base. The Myanmar Tourism Master Plan completed in 2012 set targets of 1.52 million international visitors in 2015 and 2.81 million in 2020. Three million visitors arrived last year, so a new target for this year has been set at five million. Travellers imagining a seamless experience will find infrastructure and services are often stretched, where they exist. Isolated for so long, there's a collective temptation - a desire, even - to see Myanmar as idyllic, romantic. But amid the enchantment, there are flaws.
I'm one of a group keeping disappointments to a minimum by travelling from Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to Mandalay (always Mandalay) along the Irrawaddy on a riverboat called Cruiseco Explorer. Well, nearly - the vessel is, in fact, moored at Prome (also known as Pyay), a white-knuckle drive of six and a half hours in a bus from Yangon.
Cruiseco is a consortium of more than 200 cruise-specialist travel agents, and Cruiseco Explorer - custom-built for Burmese waters and launched late last year - brings a new level of sophistication to the Irrawaddy. Cruiseco bills its boat as a "floating five-star hotel". Staterooms, facilities and service are all impressive and there are enough overhead fans, shutters and teak to create a pleasing colonial aesthetic. And it's boutique in style and size, with a maximum of 56 guests.
Unlike most five-star hotels, however, the Cruiseco experience is not just about the lodgings and the destination but the journey and an itinerary that cleverly balances adventure, education and relaxation. This, despite the fact there's less to see along the way in the late dry season - from March to May - when the level of the Irrawaddy is low.
There's no lack of excitement, however, on the high-adventure drive from Yangon to Prome. This would sell well as an extreme-action video game.
Onboard the Cruiseco Explorer.
We navigate a road of a thousand potholes, weaving through religious initiation processions, roadside repairs, trishaws and tankers, bikes and buses and trucks, overloaded with rice, sugar cane, timber and army recruits all heading for their respective processing plants. Eventually we arrive in Prome, where the docks turn out to be the boondocks. We park in the sandhills above the river and clamber down the riverbank to the welcome civilisation of the Cruiseco Explorer.
The river is a living museum of Indochinese maritime history: bamboo rafts, canoes, pontoons, tugs, barges, ferries, fishing boats, even floating shrines. The Irrawaddy, after all, was and still is Kipling's fabled road to Mandalay, and its waters connect people with people and small communities with the outside world.
Mandalay Hill Resort.
There are encouraging signs that Myanmar as a nation is connecting with the outside world, though the hypnotic progress of our riverboat is an uncanny metaphor for the pace of change. The country is rich in energy and mining resources and China, India and Japan have been quick to throw neighbourhood welcome parties. But threadbare infrastructure - poor roads, unreliable power supplies, shortages of skilled labour - poses real challenges at all levels; sometimes for tourists, too, bewildered by dodgy communications and power outages that can cripple ATMs mid-transaction. These realities support the wisdom of river cruising through Myanmar in the convivial company of well-informed guides and attentive crew to iron out the many wrinkles that still make visiting this country an adventure.
Locals take a break in Bagan.
The beauty of the pagodas and other monuments dominates Cruiseco Explorer's itinerary, but there are also glimpses of lives that aren't dazzled by this beauty. We visit communities where it seems village life has changed relatively little for a century or more. We drop into Thayetmyo in Central Myanmar, a former frontier post that guarded the border between Royal Myanmar and British Myanmar and whose heritage is recalled by the locals as Scottish colonial. Thayetmyo's unique attraction is its golf course - the oldest in the country and proudly displaying the sign "Thayet Golf Club. Founded in 1887. Affiliated to St Andrews Golf Club of Scotland". Okay, the clubhouse looks more like a bus shelter and, on the rock-strewn fairways, the drive's second bounce is likely to go 90 degrees left or right. But the souvenir opportunities are irresistible.
We arrive at Magwe Central Market, 300 kilometres from Mandalay, murmuring smugly that this is "an authentic local market" rather than a tourist market. This is confirmed by the extensive array of fan belts and oil-filter elements, but you can't have it both ways.
The daily schedule delivered to each room on the boat thoughtfully lists the number of "shoes-off" visits on each excursion. ("Salay Walking Tour. Visit the Mann Pagoda and Old Wooden Monastery. Two times shoe-off.") Pagodas generally stipulate bare feet but covered shoulders and knees, so wardrobe planning is advisable.
Modes of transport during our shore excursions include horse and cart, open jeeps, air-conditioned buses and the totally air-conditioned hot-air balloon flight over the breathtaking Bagan archaeological site, which allows us to add 2,237 pagodas to our already-staggering list of viewed monuments. And tomorrow there's the Shwezigon Pagoda, the Burmese prototype Buddhist pagoda in Bagan (shoes off) and a visit to another authentic local market.
Markets in the old colonial area of Yangon.
Cruiseco has an admirable policy of helping communities along the river and, at Nyaung-U market in Bagan, we buy pencils, books and sporting equipment to donate to the school at Shwe Pyi Thar, a village with a population of about 800. Only half the school-age children in this area receive an education, so enthusiasm runs high. Our visit is during school holidays and on a Sunday afternoon every pupil is here to share in the excitement of our gifts and to sing for us in appreciation. Heartwarming doesn't come much warmer than this.
Cruiseco contributes to our education with an excellent series of lectures, films and demonstrations on board, including the screening of Robert H Lieberman's honest and courageous documentary They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, shot clandestinely towards the end of the junta's rule and still sparking controversy within the country. Less controversial, but easier to share with the family on my return, is a cooking class conducted by our kitchen staff featuring two favourite Burmese dishes: tea-leaf salad and ginger salad. Take chickpea powder, lime juice, roasted peanuts...
Burmese food is generally more subtle than that of its Indochinese neighbours. The meals on Cruiseco Explorer are safe rather than adventurous, to satisfy the majority of palates, and while dinner menus are broadly European in concept, lunch menus list Burmese and Thai marinated salads and noodle dishes, plus soups, curries and tempura dishes that reflect the flavours of the region.
The guides are worth their weight in gold leaf in matching price with quality during factory visits to silversmiths, silk weavers, a lacquer-ware factory, a pottery village - most of which turn out to be showroom visits. More informal souvenir shopping is made incredibly convenient by large flocks of youngsters offering "George Orwell's latest book", "A-grade jade jewellery" at two bracelets for $3, and batik-print ladies trousers - "just your size, sir".
There is, of course, an upriver cruise for every downriver cruise, and the general rule in river cruising is to select the one that builds towards the crescendo: the wonder of Machu Picchu at the end of the Amazon cruise, the magnificence of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap at the end of a Mekong adventure. Sagaing Hill near Mandalay is regarded as the epicentre of spiritual fervour in Myanmar, the site of 600 white pagodas and monasteries, 100 meditation centres and home to 3000 monks. But despite the image of romance, enchantment and mystery that Kipling conjured 125 years ago - and with which we have cheerfully lived ever since - Mandalay is not the high point of the Myanmar experience. Personally, I like the sort of town that has chooks in the CBD, but Mandalay also has an air of uncertainty and the people here are much more reserved than in the south.
It's no longer the place depicted by Kipling and George Orwell, though they were writing of Burma at a tumultuous time, when uncertainty served as an accelerator rather than a brake. The colonial temples were places such as Yangon's Pegu Club, a sort of gin palace disparaged by Orwell in his novel Burmese Days. The colonial masters celebrated The Pegu's raffish debauchery in total ignorance of the local culture surrounding it. (Cruiseco Explorer has taken the club's classic self-titled cocktail as its signature. Gin, curaçao, lime juice, orange bitters and Angostura bitters from memory, but then again...)
Magwe central market.
A conspicuous saving grace in Mandalay is the excellent Mandalay Hill Resort, regarded almost as a pagoda itself by regular, devoted guests. With a gleaming marble foyer, cigar bar and garden theatre restaurant, there's nothing superficial about its comfort, convenience and efficient service. Cruiseco Explorer's passengers get to enjoy this sanctuary during an overnight stay, and a couple of Rum Sours at the acclaimed Kipling's Lounge can help bedtime come around quite quickly.
Having thrown the choice of cruise direction into doubt, let me say that my personal choice would be Mandalay to Yangon. The latter's modern history can be traced through its colonial-era architecture - monuments of Victorian, Art Deco and neoclassical design - though perhaps for not much longer. Since 2005, when the government moved the capital from Yangon to the more central Naypyidaw, many of the grand buildings that had housed government agencies have become derelict and developers are queueing for the prime real estate they stand on.
Rice noodles, snow peas, cabbage, chicken, sweet soy, peanuts and sour mustard onboard the boat.
Buildings such as the Myawaddy Bank, once the Reserve Bank of India, The Port Authority, Sofaer's Building on Pansodan Street, the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall contribute to what has been called the last example of a "colonial core" still intact in Asia. Among the most impressively preserved buildings is The Strand, an elegant colonnaded building in the Victorian style, once declared "the finest hostelry east of Suez", a compliment the current management still clings to. The Strand is a reminder that Yangon's colonial treasures can challenge the pagodas when it comes to dropping jaws.
Yangon is a hugely appealing destination, its energy, optimism and confidence as attractive as its parks, lakes and tree-lined streets. The city looks well on its way to regaining its former status as a vibrant, cosmopolitan capital - perhaps Asia's next boomtown. These are the dreams of a people leap-frogging from oppressed to irrepressible, and you wonder if the magic of Yangon, and all Myanmar, will last as long as the ghosts of its colonial past.
Go now while you can still experience the charms of old Indochina.
Cruiseco Explorer operates 11- and 17-night voyages between Mandalay and Yangon in Myanmar from August to April, along the Irrawaddy, Upper Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers. An 11-night cruise costs from $5,399 per person twin share (singles from $8,399), 17 nights from $6,999 per person twin share (singles from $12,999). This includes return economy airfares from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Yangon or Mandalay, seven nights (or 14 nights on the longer itinerary) in a French balcony cabin, all transfers, all meals, drinks (local beer, soft drinks and wines served with meals), onboard tips, and hotel accommodation for a few nights at the Mandalay Hill Resort and the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon (varies with the itinerary). Also included are extensive sightseeing excursions with local guides.