Myanmar – Romancing The Irrawaddy

A cruise isn’t mandatory for a Myanmar itinerary. Most central Burmese attractions are easily accessed from Mandalay or Bagan by road or public ferry. But there is something about a river cruise, about floating lazily on an ancient body of water while witnessing life unfold along its banks, that is intimate and immersive. We had experienced the magic on the Nile, and the Irrawaddy, with its pagoda studded banks, was possibly even more enchanting.

A boat cruise, unlike large ocean cruises, is about getting to know the land. Excursions began early, most times divided into two shifts interspersed with a leisurely lunch. The 52 people on board the Irrawaddy Explorer, were divided into three small groups and the order of visits staggered so cruise mates didn’t bump into each other at every stop. The group excursions took some getting used to, after so many years of independent travel. But I soon became adept at avoiding inadvertent photo bombers and finding my own space during each visit.

It was remarkable how easy it was to fall into the slow rhythm of that schedule. The extremely talented chef and the free flowing beer, additionally helped lull us into a soporific state. That internet was practically non existent was actually a plus. We resolved to try to stick to the ‘early to bed, early to rise’ schedule when we returned, but that went out of the window as soon as we fully reconnected with the World Wide Web.

Our (cruise) itinerary traced the evolution of Burmese history – and their royals’ penchant for building and abandoning capital cities in reverse*. From Mandalay, the last capital where the monarchy met its ignominious end, all the way to the ancient Pyu city state of Sri Ksetra: the birthplace of the Tibeto Burman race, as well as the Bagan (Pagan) kingdom.

Mandalay felt like the Mumbai of Myanmar. Crowded and edgy. Its principal monument, King Thibaw’s famed Glass Palace, a newish reconstruction and currently occupied by the army. The only major original structure from the complex to have survived Allied bombing during World War II, is the ornately carved Shwenandaw pagoda, itself dismantled from Thibaw’s father’s palace in Amarapura and re-erected here for use as a monastery.

The Mahamuni pagoda with its 13ft tall gold leaf encrusted Buddha, and the Kuthodaw pagoda that holds the largest book in the world, are both important pilgrimage spots and great places for people watching. It was a bit of a let down though to discover that the ‘book’, although impressive, was a series of large inscribed stone ‘pages’ in individual shrines and not the giant book I had envisaged. Our rather packed first day ended spectacularly on a sampan in Amarapura, just in time to watch the sun slip behind Ubein bridge: the longest teak wood foot bridge in the world. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to walk across it at dawn.

We stopped a while at the Settawaya Paya (Stupa) on the edge of the riverbank on our stroll through the erstwhile royal residence of Mingun next morning, before continuing on to the circular Hsinbyume Paya. I was half hoping to spot playful young novice monks cavorting over the wavy white terraces of the latter like I had seen in glossy photo spreads online. I discovered much later that those ‘professional’ galleries routinely use paid models!

Mingun’s claim to fame is the enormous 18th century unfinished stupa – the Mingun Paya – that was meant to rival the pyramids of Giza as the largest structure on the planet. It was abandoned when only one third complete, based on a prophesy – possibly concocted by ministers appalled at the extravagance – that its completion would lead to king Bodhawpaya’s demise. Then there is the Mingun bell. Also gigantic.And the remnants of what were once the formidable guardian dragon/lions (Chinte) of the mega Paya.

That afternoon, each couple was bundled into horse carts for a bone rattling convoy into Ava (Innwa), evocative of its 360 year imperial history. The key attractions here are the exquisite teak Bagaye monastery and the unusual (for the time), masonry monastery of Maha Aungmye Bonzan, built also uncommonly, by the queen.

Over the ensuing week, we explored the Hpowindaung caves near Monywa with innumerable Buddhas in varying sizes and postures; the rather garish and Disneyfied (in 1939) but ever so popular 13CE Thanboddhay Pagoda with Buddhas in the thousands; the amazing stupa fields of Bagan (over two days) including a drive to Tan Kyi for panoramic views over the Bagan plains; colonial buildings and the intricately carved wooden Youqson Kyaung Taw Gyi  (a replica of the Crown Prince house in Mandalay) in Salay; the Mya Tha Lun pagoda in Magwe; the 5CE walls and gates of the UNESCO listed Pyu capital of Sri Ksetra, the ancient and unadorned Phayagyi: one of three earliest surviving stupas in the country, and in nearby Pyay the glittering Shwesandaw pagoda nearly as grand as the Shwedagon in Yangon.

Yes, a bit of a pagoda overload! Perhaps more than a bit:) But there were delightful village walks, visits to markets and schools, topical lectures and cookery demonstrations (I won myself a beautiful Longyi for my skill in tossing tea leaf salad!) in between, to ward off pagoda fatigue. And on this particular sailing, even an impromptu New Year’s eve ‘beach’ party complete with fireworks!

The boat itself was lovely. The cabins surprisingly spacious and well appointed and with ample seating and enough power sockets to charge all our electronics and cameras at one go. Although the toilet and towels fell marginally short of my expectations of luxury. The floor length and wall to wall glass windows through which we witnessed some brilliant sunrises right from our bed, was my favourite feature. As well as the comfortable sun deck, to which we decamped at every opportunity and from where we had our ringside view to the goings on around the river. 

The exceptionally friendly and helpful staff deserve particular mention. Especially the sweet Mr Thong, who accompanied us on every excursion, handed out wipes to clean our feet at the end of every temple visit, and generally ensured our comfort and well being in the gentlest manner possible. Apart from Steven Stubblefield, the American cruise director, they were all young local Burmese, wholly dependent on tourism for their livelihoods. Their farewell message on our final night aboard, was a telling request to share the beauty of their country and of the beautiful river that bisects it. “We need your help, now more than ever.”

*The upstream itinerary from Yangon to Mandalay does it oldest first.

Disclaimer: We availed generous press discounts for the cruise portion of our trip from Haimark Travel. 

Update: As of April 2016, Haimark Travel has declared bankruptcy and terminated all operations. The Irrawaddy Explorer is now being marketed by Ayravata Cruises.