Cruising in Burma... along the Chindwin
Some places have names that sound instantly exotic to us dream-filled travellers: Zanzibar, Timbuktu, Samarkand… and Mandalay.
In 1922, when Somerset Maugham visited Burma (officially known as Myanmar since 1989), he observed how this enchanting word seems to have “an independent magic” that somehow raises the visitor's expectations. That's certainly true when I fly into this former royal capital on a flight packed with excited travellers eager to explore a bewitching country still opening up to tourism. Today this fabled destination is home to a modern, traffic-congested city, but the surrounding countryside is still rich with ancient wonders gathered beside a broad bend of the Irrawaddy river. Gazing across its sepia waters to the 37 sacred hills of Sagaing, which lie 20km to the south-west and are crowned with hundreds of gleaming shrines, pagodas and monasteries dating from the early 14th century, it is clear that the spell of Mandalay is as potent as ever.
River cruising has always been the most comfortable and romantic way to savour this huge country: Burma still has a shortage of top class hotels and expert guides, and making long journeys over muddy, pot-holed roads aboard ‘best available buses’ can be a wearying business. Many visitors book a voyage up and down the mighty Irrawaddy, but I've chosen to do my touring on an 11-night, 1,647-km adventure that will see us sail up the long, brown tentacle of the little-visited Chindwin river that 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 Pagan (Bagan).
Named after the small, beakless dolphins that inhabit the rivers of southern Asia, the four-deck Belmond Orcaella was purpose-built in Rangoon (Yangon) to ply these narrow, shallow waters, which can only be navigated during August and September. One of the joys of picking this journey is a delicious sense of escaping the standard tourist circuit, while travelling on a smaller waterway means you see much more riverbank life.
Within an hour of casting off, I feel like I've boarded a five-star time-machine 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 world. Yes, there are mobile phones and garish adverts for Lucky Cow creamer, but the predominant images are of water buffaloes wallowing in the mud and fishermen in conical hats drifting by in wooden canoes with colourful sails sewn from old sheets. Giggling schoolchildren wave, burgundy-robed monks saunter through the paddy fields, a gilded stupa catches the evening sunlight like a glistening gold tooth.
My fellow passengers are an affable mix of Australians, Americans and Europeans aged from 13 to 90. Many are first-timers keen to catch a glimpse of this hot-list country before it becomes more developed, and we all get on well – perhaps because, unlike on some ocean-going cruises, we are all here to look and learn rather than merely relax and gorge.
With just 25 cabins, the ambience on board is homely and pampering, with serene comforts that include a sun terrace, 6-metre swimming pool, spa, fitness centre and plush cabins featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, rain showers and Bulgari toiletries.
Service levels are high with a 54-strong crew, including an onboard doctor and a talented chef who cooks up tasty soups, snacks and curries that introduce us to the country's lightly spiced cuisine: the fish soup, mohinga, an intriguing pennywort salad, grilled prawns and various sticky desserts, not forgetting the palatable local Red Mountain wine. Our English-speaking guides give lectures on subjects ranging from modern Burmese fiction to herbal medicine, but it pays to do some background reading too in order to get the most from the many visits to places of worship.
These range from the colossal Bodhi Tataung Buddha near Monywa, which rises 129 metres, to an extraordinary orange pavilion nearby that was erected by two Chinese brothers who made a fortune from the body rub Tiger Balm, created by their father in Rangoon in the 1870s. Adorned with snarling tigers and statues of the sons dressed in suits and ties, it makes a refreshing change from the deluge of Buddha images that are a prominent feature of our daily sightseeing.
Our trips ashore have the air of presidential visits, with a supporting posse of Belmond Orcaella staff following us through the teakbuilt villages armed with umbrellas, walkie-talkies, wet wipes and bottles of chilled water. We are not cocooned, though, and the Burmese are as keen to take pictures of and engage with us as we are of them. We stop at markets to buy intricately woven baskets, sample snacks of deep-fried gourd, chat with monks and admire young boys playing chinlone, a popular sport like keepie-uppie that's played with a rattan ball.
At Mawleik we ride standing up in the back of construction trucks to a jungle camp where elephants are taught to haul logs, while at other ports of call we visit schools to donate exercise books and give alms to parading monks. For many, the most memorable encounter is watching five boys aged from six to 10 being prepared for monastic education in Mokehtaw. As I sit among the proud mothers watching their nervous sons have their heads shaved, the mixed emotions rippling round the village hall are like the first day of term at any primary school in the world.
The most northerly point up the Chindwin river that we can venture to is Homalin. It feels a privilege to travel in these remote waters where special permission is required to visit a sensitive frontier region where, at some points, the Indian border is just 50km away. Now we are close to the mountainous homelands of the Naga tribes whose bright red handwoven textiles make an irresistible souvenir. We get to try some of their local dishes and take a tuk-tuk ride to the port's celebrated Buddah Lotus Garden.
Afterwards, as the crew prepare for the long but quicker return voyage downstream, with different stops en route, I notice a large sign on the quayside that reads “Warmly welcome and take care of tourists”. Is this advice for the local townsfolk? Or just a poorly phrased greeting to foreign visitors? Either way, it undoubtedly reflects how we've been treated in Burma. After countless dreamy days lost on the Chindwin, being enchanted, educated and cosseted, I feel most reluctant to return to ‘normal’ life with its tiresome routines, annoying bills and daily blizzard of emails. As Maugham observed during his visit, “When a traveller sets out the one person he must leave behind is himself”. Drifting along the rivers of Burma – so calm, so picturesque – you can certainly do that.
Recommended Cox & Kings tour
Discovering the Chindwin with Belmond Orcaella
15 Days & 13 Nights from £4,995
Sail from Mandalay to Pagan (Bagan) aboard the stylish Belmond Orcaella. Discover quaint rural villages, experience the bustle of morning markets, explore ancient temples, pagodas and monasteries, and soak up the passing riverside scenery. See more >