Kevin Revolinski explores the many facets of Burma’s Irrawaddy river in style from the Orient Express’ Road To Mandalay cruiseship, starting at the spectacular ancient temples of Bagan and heading to historic Mandalay.
Myanmar might be the up-and-coming star of Southeast Asia and tourist numbers are showing sharp increases over the last couple years. Impressive temple ruins and their golden modern counterparts, natural beauty of lakes, mountains and sea, and a multi-ethnic population that may be creeping up on Thailand’s heels for that Land of Smiles reputation. But the infrastructure isn’t quite up to snuff to support easy travel. Your choice is internal flights or some rather uncomfortable bus rides.
So far, Myanmar has been a big hit with backpackers: food and accommodations are cheap and even flights into Yangon are budget-friendly thanks to AirAsia. But for those who want the luxury treatment, Orient Express can set you up. (You might recognize the name from the classic Paris-Istanbul train route made even more famous by an Agatha Christie murder mystery.) Now a modern travel and hospitality company, Orient Express goes beyond Europe as well as beyond the rails. One such example is a high-end river cruise called Road to Mandalay.
The Ayeyarwady River runs the heart of Myanmar all the way down from the mountains in the north to the Andaman Sea in the south. A cruise on the Road to Mandalay lets you see the river life from the decks of luxury ship while eliminating the discomforts and hassles of using local transportation (a whole other sort of adventure which may be more attractive to some).
The river boat is a bit different from a big ocean-going cruise, and though there are shore excursions, the effort of them is not as demanding as an expedition cruise. The ship has a maximum of 118 passengers and offers five cabin sizes, from a rather roomy single on up to the Governor’s Suite.
On-board facilities include a piano bar, a lecture/activity room with audiovisual equipment, a small library in a sun-filled room at the prow, and a massage room and fitness center further aft. The top deck has two canopied sections with lounge chairs and a small pool in the center of a sun deck. Breakfast and lunch are buffet, while dinner has a number of selections on a set menu that offers both Asian and Western choices: one can order a bottle of French or Myanmar wine, and nibble on a selection of fine French cheeses after filet mignon or a plate of Burmese curry. Dinner is a classy affair with white-linen tables and a requirement for gents to don a jacket.
Cruise lengths vary. A three- or four-day sail takes in Mandalay, Mingon and Bagan, while the longest voyage is a 12-day/11-night beauty that starts in Mandalay and travels all the way north near Mogok where you can see working elephants in a teak forest. The ship sails south again past Mandalay to end at Bagan. A short flight, booked in coordination with Orient Express, gets you to and from the starting/ending points.
On board at night, guests attend presentations about Myanmar culture, have a cooking lesson or even see a dance show. During the day, they head ashore to explore among the people.
This arid plain along a long bend in the Ayeyarwady River is nothing short of spectacular. Think Cambodia’s Angkor without all the jungle blocking the view. In an area of 41 km2, you’ll find over 2,000 temples and pagodas. Bagan is an amazing place to start (and a worthy grand finale if you are coming the other direction on this cruise). Before the boat sets sail, you have an evening sunset visit among the temples and an early morning visit to the modern towns nearby as well. Lacquerware shop tours are offered — your choice — but the morning market in town is a bit more fascinating.
(Read about Bagan’s Essential Temples and Angkor, Bagan, Sukhothai for practical temple suggestions and background history).
Once the home of the Burmese royalty, this city of one million is now the economic center. Kuthodaw Pagoda’s 729 gleaming white stupas hold stone tablets that collectively make up the entire Buddhist scripture and are thus considered the largest book in the world. Shwenandaw Monastery is a really impressive work of wood carving, and was once part of the palace before being moved to its present location in 1880. Mandalay Palace would have been a good visit — if it hadn’t burned down in World War II. Though the big walls and surrounding moat are impressive, what lies within is a model and rather disappointing.
On the non-pagoda side of things, you can visit workers pounding gold leaf and witness the creation of those paper thin squares for templegoers to paste onto Buddha images. Other artisans to see include silverworkers and marble carvers.
Not far from where the cruise moors just south of Mandalay is a bridge over the river to Sagaing. Be sure to visit the nunnery and see the young girls studying Buddhist texts. Up at the tops of these hills overlooking the Ayeyarwady are the pagodas which are connected by covered walkways and offer some excellent views especially toward sunset.
Just up the river from Mandalay lies another former capital, Mingun. Travelers leave the ship for another nearby port where they board a working boat for the 11-km day trip upriver. In Mingun the main attraction is what could have been the largest stupa in the world — had it been completed. You can still climb it (be careful in the heat) and take in the view. The structure is really just a giant brick box with some wide cracks in its walls from a 19th-century earthquake. Also of note in this little dusty street town is the world’s largest ringing bell, weighing in at 90 tons. You can hire an ox and buggy taxi for a short ride. In the end, this side trip pales in comparison to Bagan or even Mandalay and the sail itself to get there may be the best highlight: seeing the workers at the docks, other boats on the river, and life along shore.
Taungthaman Lake and U Bein Bridge
Come here toward the end of the day as mists rise off the lake into the light of dusk and distant white pagodas reflect off the water. You can hire a local to paddle you around in a colorful boat, but the unmissable here is U Bein Bridge. The world’s longest teak bridge, it curls 1.2 km across the water. Make the walk, or at least part of it, but don’t miss your photo opp when the smoldering sunset backlights silhouettes of crossing monks and other pedestrians and bicyclists.
A short walk from the pier for Road to Mandalay you can see the local monks lining up and making the rounds for alms. The make a circuit through town before returning to the temple with their food for the day.
Burma River Cruising Companies
- The Orient Express — Road to Mandalay
- Extend your voyage by spending a night in Yangon at the Governor’s Residence, the Orient Express’ restored teak mansion, before and after your cruise.
- As an alternative to Orient Express you might consider traveling with Pandaw River Cruises which offers tours up to two weeks in length on newly built replicas of luxury colonial steamers. While it doesn’t quite match the level of luxury, its prices reflect that.
- For budget travelers, look into Amara River Cruises which offers passage aboard a refurbished traditional teak riverboat.
- For adventurous independent travelers, there are always the local river boats which make overnight journeys on schedules left to the whims of weather, water, daylight and whoever’s in charge.
Jodi at Legal Nomads wrote a great account of travelling by river from Bhamo to Mandalay on a government boat for the princely sum of $9 a night – with the bonus of a solar eclipse.