The Road to Mandalay – A luxurious Belmond river journey through majestic Myanmar
Images of a Golden Land
Laurence Mitchell experiences the culture, colour and magic of Myanmar, meandering leisurely along the Ayeyarwady River
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells,
On the road to Mandalay
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay.
It may come as a surprise but Rudyard Kipling, author of that much-loved poem, The Road to Mandalay, never actually saw the city of the title. In fact, Kipling only ever visited Myanmar (or Burma, as it was then) on one occasion and that was for just a few days. Those of us aboard the boat of the same name were far more fortunate: by the time we had completed our short cruise we would not only have seen the eponymous city but we would also have spent longer in the country than the colonial writer ever did.
Our six-night Myanmar itinerary began with a night in Yangon at the Governor’s Residence, a teak colonial mansion, now a hotel, tucked away in the capital’s leafy embassy district. An overnight stay here allowed time to acclimatise to heat, sleep off jet-lag and, most importantly, pay a visit to the nearby Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most iconic temple.
The cruise itself started in central Myanmar the following day once a short flight and bus transfer had delivered us to our sleek river boat, the Belmond Road to Mandalay, moored at Nyaung U, a small town close to Bagan on the Ayeyarwady River. After being welcomed on board and treated to a sumptuous buffet lunch we were whisked off on an afternoon tour of the Bagan region.
First came Old Bagan’s Anand Pahto Temple with its four gilded teak Buddhas, then the frescoed 13th-century Gubyaukgyi Temple, just west of Nyaung U, before a visit to a village lacquerware workshop. As we were soon to discover, if there are two things that Myanmar has in glorious abundance it is temples and lacquerware.
The Buddhist temples we visited were hugely impressive but it was even more remarkable to see them en masse – the plains around Bagan are cluttered with something like 2,500 of them, the remnants of a temple-building frenzy a millennium ago. Even Marco Polo, who had seen it all, was smitten. So were we, especially when we watched the sun set over the plain from our temple-top vantage point – an extraordinary scene as the brick pagodas glowed orange in the dusty air.
An early rise was necessary next morning in order to return to the Bagan plain. This time, rather than the sunset blush of the evening before, we were rewarded with the spectacle of hot air balloons rising between the temples in the dawn half-light.
This dazzling sight was followed with a tour of Nyaung U market, which even at this early hour was already in full swing with straw-hatted countrywomen hawking a rich array of fruit, vegetables and river fish.
Shwezion Paya came next – Nyaung U’s own answer to Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda – a place that seemed to be as lively with souvenir vendors as it was with monks and worshipers.
Back at the boat, we got underway to spend the rest of the day sailing upstream towards Mandalay. Demonstrations on aspects of Burmese culture like longyi (men’s wraparounds) and thanaka (ladies’ face powder) were available on the top deck for those in need of diversion but most of us were content enough to lazily watch the river flow by with a book and a cold drink in hand.
It took little time to adapt to the relaxed rhythm of life on board the boat, formerly a German river cruiser. Breakfast, as dinner, was served each day in the dining room – no lukewarm fried eggs here, but Eggs Benedict a la carte, along with fresh fruit and cereals. At dinner – invariably, a delicious gourmet menu – the wine list even included a palatable Shiraz from Myanmar’s very own Red Mountain Estate. Lunch was buffet-style, either in the restaurant or al fresco on deck.
The Observation Deck with its sun recliners was also the favoured location for whiling away the hours between sightseeing, although, after dinner, cocktails in the Piano Bar provided another tempting option. At the end of the day our spacious cabins, tastefully fitted out using local materials like Burmese teak and jade, were perfect for a good night’s sleep.
Approaching Mandalay next day, the landscape became greener and more heavily wooded the further we ventured upstream. Even so, this being the dry season, the water was so shallow in places that it was necessary to send a launch ahead to test its depth.
At Shwe Kyet Yet, a few miles south of Mandalay, half a dozen shore workers were lined up ready to pull in the ropes and position a walkway to help us ashore. With colourful fishing boats chugging to and fro, our Mandalay mooring was an undeniably attractive spot. Dotted along a ridge across the water, a multitude of gilded pagodas glistened in the afternoon sun. After dark, with each pagoda illuminated by bright neon lights, the scene would become even more evocative.
A tour of Mandalay followed lunch: first, a visit to the city’s teak Royal Palace, then to Mahamuni Paya, home to Myanmar’s most sacred Buddha image. At a gold-leaf workshop in Mandalay’s bazaar district, we were shown how the metal is painstaking pounded to produce the ultra-thin squares used to gild statues and pagodas.
Stepping out of the workshop, we came across a crocodile of pink-clad nuns threading their way through the market, lacquer bowls at the ready for their thrice-weekly food collection. An everyday occurrence to Burmese eyes, perhaps, but an extraordinary sight for Westerners like us.
The afternoon concluded with an even more astonishing spectacle at Taungthaman Lake south of the city, where monks and villagers were strolling back and forth across the mile-long U Bein’s Bridge. Presented with the almost impossibly photogenic scene of bridge walkers silhouetted by the setting sun, the fact that this happened to be the world’s longest teak bridge seemed an almost trivial detail.
It had been arranged that the Road to Mandalay crew would distribute food to the local monks the following day and so we were up very early next morning to stroll through Shwe Kyet Yet’s misty streets to witness the event – an object lesson in Buddhist humility.
After breakfast back on the boat, a battered but serviceable local vessel ferried us north to Mingun, an hour’s ride away. In addition to being home to the world’s biggest un-cracked bell, a 90 ton giant, Mingun is also where the world’s largest unfinished pagoda stands. Although only one-third complete, Mingun Paya is colossal, a veritable mountain of brick, its base deeply cracked by the earthquake that took place shortly after its abandonment in 1838.
Later that afternoon we headed off on a final excursion to Sagaing, the settlement across the water beneath the pagoda-studded ridge. With so many temples, it came as no surprise to learn that Sagaing is one of the country’s holiest towns. After a visit to a silversmith’s workshop we called in at one of the town’s nunneries, where novices, shyly oblivious to the strangers in their midst, were busy cooking, cleaning and studying sacred texts.
Then we drove up to the top of Sagaing Hill to a temple overlooking the Ayeyarwady River below. Visible on the water, like a toy boat seen from this distance, was the unmistakable profile of the Road to Mandalay.
Sadly, we would soon be leaving it behind as we were flying back to Yangon the following morning. Six days may not be long but we had all grown fond of Myanmar in that short time. Not only that: now we all knew that the true ‘road’ to Mandalay was, in fact, a river.
Facts and figures
The Ship – MV Road to Mandalay: originally a German river cruiser called the MS Nederland built in 1964 that formerly sailed the Elbe in northern Germany. Bought by Orient-Express (now Belmond) and ferried to Myanmar in 1995 for a full refit; fully refurbished again in 2008 following Cyclone Nargis. Length 101m, beam 11.6m, draft 1.45m, four decks. Accommodating a maximum of 82 passengers in 43 cabins – 16 deluxe cabins (30m²), 18 state cabins (30m²), 4 superior cabins (35m²), 1 Governor’s Suite (51m²).
Journey description – Belmond Road to Mandalay: a luxurious cruise along the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar between Nyaung U near Bagan to Shwe Kyet Yet near Mandalay. Many small group excursions included to sites of interest in the vicinity of both Bagan and Mandalay – Buddhist temples, palaces, craft workshops and markets.
Duration – Four nights cruise, one night before and after in a Yangon hotel.
Guest profile – British, Australian, American, predominantly 40+, single guests welcome.
Facilities – All cabins have personal safe, television, hairdryer. La Source Beauty Spa offering a range of onboard treatments, doctor on board, boutique, piano bar. Gourmet dining based on different themes – Burmese, Thai, Chinese, European etc. Laundry service, library, Wellbeing suite with fitness room and exercise machines.
When to Go – October to March.
Special Considerations – Pack walking shoes, waterproofs in wet season, light cotton clothes, sun cream, swimming costume, small backpack, camera, binoculars. Dining dress code is smart casual. A light sweater is handy for evenings and early mornings. Knees should be covered when visiting temples. Take US dollars cash to change in local currency – currently there are no viable ATMs in Myanmar. Credit cards may be used for onboard payment.
What to buy – Lacquerware, traditional clothing, silver.
Unique selling point – The opportunity to see this largely undiscovered, ancient land whilst travelling in comfort and style. Plentiful shore excursions provided to sites of interest by boat and bus. Tea, coffee, juice, soft drinks, water and local beer are complimentary. Private tours and Bagan balloon flights may be booked in advance. Internal flights are included to and from Yangon, where accommodation may be booked at Orient-Express’s own The Governor’s Residence, a former colonial teak mansion.
Cruise-line Belmond Road to Mandalay, 1st floor Shackleton House, 4 Battle Bridge Lane, London SE1 2HP, UK. tel: +44 (0)20 3117 1300. Website: http://www.belmond.com
UK Reservations: email@example.com; USA: firstname.lastname@example.org
Local contact: The Governor’s Residence, 39C, Taw Win Road, Dagon Township, Yangon, Myanmar. Tel: +95 1 217 361.
Accommodation The Governor’s Residence, Yangon http://governorsresidence.com.
Planning your journey A 28-day tourist visa can easily be obtained in advance from a Myanmar embassy abroad.