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Loving the land of temples on an exotic Myanmar river cruise

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Loving the land of temples on an exotic Myanmar river cruise

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Our horse cart clip-clops along a sand track, stirring up swirls of red dust as we weave around Bagan’s brick pagodas while on a Myanmar river cruise.

Once a magnificent kingdom, Bagan is studded by some 4,000 temples and stupas built by the kings of Myanmar between 1044 and 1287.

Burnished by the rays of the baking sun, they spread out as far as the eye can see.

Sulamani Temple, Bagan

Each temple is unique.

Some are crumbling relics overgrown with weeds and bougainvillea, but most are fantastically preserved bell-shaped structures and ornate pyramid-style monuments that look like giant wedding cakes.

With a little imagination, it’s easy to envision the “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes” that Marco Polo once wrote of.

Myanmar river cruise

We’re spending eight nights aboard the luxurious river cruiser Belmond Orcaella on Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River.

Cruising the Ayeyarwady River

Belmond (the new name for the old Orient-Express group of luxury hotels, trains and rivers ships) has a long history in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. 

It launched the Belmond Road to Mandalay in 1995 – and that Myanmar river ship (since refurbished) mainly sails between Bagan and Mandalay to the north.

Our vessel, the Belmond Orcaella cruises the southern river stretch between Bagan and Myanmar’s booming capital, Yangon.

myanmar river cruise - monks

Our river cruise in Myanmar is leisurely

After leaving the bustle of Yangon, the first few days of our Ayeyarwady River cruise are languorous ones

We lie under pink umbrellas by the pool, sipping fresh-squeezed lemonade while gazing at the river traffic – long barges hauling sand for construction, rafts festooned with bamboo huts and fluttering laundry, skiffs with fishermen in conical hats reeling in their nets.

Lounging by the pool on our Myanmar river cruise

After lunch (perhaps grilled river prawns with lemongrass and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc), we usually head to our stateroom.

With polished wood floors, king-size beds, contemporary Burmese furniture, ensuite bathrooms (stocked with Bulgari amenities) and sliding glass doors to take in the views, the 25 staterooms are restful retreats from the outside world.

Later, we might enjoy a lecture about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader of the National League for Democracy, or a lesson on how to tie a longyi (the traditional wrap-around skirt worn by locals).

But we also leave the sanctuary of our river ship on shore excursions.

Tuk-tuk and scooter in Magwe, Myanmar

Myanmar river cruise excursions

Our first is to the country village of Danuphyu.

We hop on trishaws and are pedaled to the colorful market.

Trishaw ride in Myanmar

So many fruits and veggies!

There are mangoes, carrots, lettuces, herbs and straw baskets of red chilis and other spices.

Spices at the Magwe market in Myanmar

Outside of Yangon, 80% of the people don’t have electricity, but they eat well. They love their sweets too. A turbaned vendor hacks off a slice of dry “cake” made from rice flour and palm sugar for us to try.

We notice many girls and women have their faces and arms smeared with thanaka, a yellowish-white paste made from ground bark (worn as a cosmetic and sunscreen).

Myanmar lady with thanaka on her face

Then we stop by a cheroot-making shop where four women deftly roll up yellow cornhusk cigars, pausing occasionally to puff on their own fat cheroots.

When we return to the Belmond Orcaella, tied to the riverbank, our trishaw driver gives us a huge grin, displaying a mouth stained red from chewing betel-nuts.

Another afternoon, we visit the splendid Shwesandaw Pagoda in Pyay.

Shwesandaw Pagoda, Pyay, Myanmar

It’s said to date back to 589 BC and contain hairs of the Buddha (its name, “Shwesandaw,” means the “golden hair relics”).

Red-robed monks walk softly about, some chatting on their cell phones.

young-monks-photo-belmond

As pale-skinned foreigners, we’re still a rare enough sight here that some locals want to take our picture.

The closer we get to Bagan on our Myanmar river cruise, the greener the banks of the silty Ayeyarwady become. Golden pagodas sprout up among tall palm trees, and we see villagers washing their clothes on the river banks.

One trip by ox cart takes us to Gwechaung Fort, designed by Italian architects for the Burmese king in 1860 to keep the British at bay (though it fell in a day).

Ox cart in Myanmar

We’re always intrigued by the local conveyances for each excursion, and this primitive ox cart ride is the most unusual.

And challenging! We’re seated on cushions on the wooden cart, while the driver sits or stands between the two oxen, tapping them with a stick to make them move. It’s very bouncy and we have to hang on tight to avoid sliding off.

Oxcart ride on our Myanmar river cruise

Back onboard, we surrender our dusty sandals to waiting staff, who will later deliver them to our stateroom, magically clean once again. And we eagerly accept the welcome-back drink – this time, fresh mint, dragonfruit and soda.

That evening, we’re treated to a special stirfry and barbeque dinner in the Min Hla Fort. Torches and candles shed flickering light on Burmese dancers swaying to music played on traditional xylophenes and harps.

And our lovely ship staff? They’re here too, refilling our glasses with champagne.

There are more memorable outings too on our Myanmar river cruise. Like our tuk tuk ride to the gilded Myathalon Pagoda in Magwe, which draws people from miles around during religious festivals. And our wander through Salay village to a fancifully carved teak monastery, now a quaint museum.

shwenandaw-kyaung-is-adorned-with-intricate-teak-carvings-of-buddhist-myths-photo-belmond-1

We visit Bagan

But the best – Bagan – awaits at the end of our Myanmar river cruise.

We learn a temple is a structure that can be entered, while a stupa is solid (“pagoda” refers to both).

And, surprise! Who knew many Bagan temples have fascinating murals and Buddha statutes inside?

Temple painting in Bagan, Myanmar
Inside Ananda Temple, Bagan, Myanmar
Buddha statue inside a pagoda in Bagan
Buddha statue in Bagan

Our favorite is the 12th century Sulamani Temple.

Demon head sculptures decorate the outside (to prevent bad spirits from crossing the threshold).

Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

In the inner chambers, beautiful wall paintings in red, green and black colors show daily life at the time – a decorated elephant, a woman having her long hair brushed, a man smoking a pipe.

It strikes us that, in many ways, life in Myanmar hasn’t changed much. The present is knocking on the door. But for now, it’s as exotic a country as you could hope to visit.

And we can’t think of a finer way to experience it than cruising on the Ayeyarwady River, the country’s lifeblood, on a river ship like the Belmond Orcaella.

Bagan

ABOUT THE BELMOND ORCAELLA

Launched in 2013, the Belmond Orcaella is one of the most elegant riverboats to book for an Ayeyarwady River cruise in Myanmar.

Built for longer 7- to 12-night voyages on both the Ayeyarwady and Chindwin Rivers exploring the country’s more remote regions, its décor is contemporary, with lots of gleaming hardwood floors, panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows, Burmese art and huge bowls of roses.

We particularly loved how much space there is. The 12 “standard” staterooms with king beds range from 258 to 344 square feet in size and have Juliet balconies (there are also 9 smaller staterooms with twin beds and 4 much larger suites).

Each stateroom also comes with a wooden closet and separate chest of drawers adorned with leather handles, desk and poufy stool, satellite TV, air-conditioning, iPod docking station, bathrobe and slippers – plus useful gifts like hand fans, sun creams, collapsible straw hats and his-and-hers Shan bags.

With a polished wood door, floor and countertops, the ensuite bathroom reminded us of colonial times (though the roomy glass rainshower and abundant Bulgari toiletries are decidedly modern).

Bulgari toiletries on Belmond river cruise in Myanmar

Lovely touch: A fresh carnation is placed on your bed each day.

A huge, shady outdoor lounge with potted plants on the top deck has intimate seating clusters of cushioned wicker armchairs and sofas (cocktail parties are also hosted here). We listened to lectures in the piano bar while sipping fresh-squeezed lemonade, and lounged by the small pool under pink umbrellas at the stern (where Tai Chi classes are offered at sunset).

Sunset over Bagan

Practical information for this Myanmar river cruise

In Yangon, we stayed at the lovely Savoy Hotel.

For more information about river cruising in Myanmar, visit the Belmond website.

Our magazine feature

A version of this story was first published in the Fall/Winter, 2016 issue of the Canadian magazine, Cruise & Travel Lifestyles. Click on the image or see here to read a PDF of our magazine article.

immersed-in-myanmar-catl-fall-winter-2016

Update March 15, 2018

Belmond is no longer chartering the riverboat that operated as the Belmond Orcaella. But the company continues to operate its popular river cruises in Myanmar on Belmond’s Road to Mandalay, which Belmond owns.


Photo credits: 2 to 5, 8, 12, 14 to 19, 21, 22, 24 to 30 and 34 to 36 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 6, 7, 11, 13, 23, 31 and 32 Belmond


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Suze

Saturday 29th of October 2016

What a stunning river boat, I'd love to take a dip in that pool and to visit Myanmar

Janice and George

Saturday 29th of October 2016

It is of the most luxurious riverboats in Myanmar - perhaps THE most luxurious? So, yes, you'd love the trip :-).

Anita and Richard

Thursday 27th of October 2016

I loved your photos of Myanmar which is truly a unique place (on our bucket list) where it seems that only superlatives can describe it! The temples and stupas of Bagan are truly magical. Definitely a trip of a lifetime! Anita

Janice and George

Thursday 27th of October 2016

Agreed :-) Myanmar is a fascinating, one-of-a-kind destination!

Michele Peterson

Wednesday 26th of October 2016

It seems as though now is the time to visit Myanmar before it gets swamped by mass tourism. A riverboat seems like a way to immerse yourself in the country yet not give up any comforts.

Janice and George

Wednesday 26th of October 2016

Yes, like the Galapagos and Antarctica, Myanmar is one of those places you want to visit soonish if you can :-). And a riverboat is a delightful way to see many of the top spots in the country...

Doreen Pendgracs

Tuesday 25th of October 2016

Wonderful post, Janice. I was sure I'd already left a comment here, but as it doesn't show, either it went into the abyss, or I was dreaming! Myanmar definitely looks like a dream. Your wonderful photos have drawn quite an ethereal mood for us.

Janice and George

Tuesday 25th of October 2016

Found your comment :-). And you're not dreaming when it comes to Myanmar -- it's quite the country that draws you in to another time...

Anda

Tuesday 25th of October 2016

Your pictures caught the atmosphere of Myanmar so well, Janice. I've read a lot about this place but I'd love to visit it in person. The river cruise must have been quite a treat, what a luxury! It seems expensive however. $11,000/couple for a week plus the airfare... I wish I could be invited on one like you (ha,ha,ha!)

Janice and George

Tuesday 25th of October 2016

Yes, Belmond does target the luxury market... We feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity to experience Myanmar this way...

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