Road to Mandalay sails through a reformed Myanmar poised for a renaissance after decades of isolation.
By Laurie Kahle, August 23, 2013
At dusk each day, a small crowd assembles at the top of the Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar, also known as Burma. Travelers from far and near—including Buddhist monks clad in maroon robes—make the steep climb up battered, timeworn steps to watch the sun sink behind the horizon and the mighty Irrawaddy River in the distance. Orient Express’s river cruiser, Road to Mandalay, is anchored in the muddy waters awaiting a four-night sojourn that will take us 128 nautical miles upriver to the fabled city of Mandalay. Despite some clouds, the afterglow casts a golden hue over the dusty plain dotted with thousands of red sandstone pagodas of all shapes and sizes. More than 2,000 of the original 13,000 structures have survived or have been reconstructed after being toppled by earthquakes over the ages.
In the Ananda Temple, built in 1105 A.D., four gilded Buddhas standing nearly 40 feet high still evoke a sense of awe. A short drive away, Gubyaukgi Temple preserves vivid floor-to ceiling frescoes in a dark inner chamber. The finely rendered 12th-century paintings depict hundreds of stories from Buddha’s life and teachings—even more remarkably, there is no line to see them up close under a handheld spotlight. In his late-12th-century account of his explorations of the region, Marco Polo described Bagan as a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes.” Today, as Myanmar has emerged from decades of isolation imposed by a brutal military regime that took control in a 1962 coup d’etat, Bagan is alive with craftspeople plying their wares to growing numbers of foreigners flush with crisp dollar bills.
For decades, Westerners, particularly Americans and Brits, avoided travel to the politically and economically oppressed country. Yet, the well-intentioned boycotts and punitive economic sanctions had little impact on loosening the generals’ iron grip. But in 2010, the dawn of a new democratic era began with elections followed by political and economic reforms and the 2011 release of the country’s long-held, Mandela-like democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is reverently referred to as The Lady. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Myanmar in December 2011, marking the normalization of diplomatic relations and the scaling back of sanctions as a reward intended to encourage continued reform. The next round of elections in April 2012 resulted in a landslide victory for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, winning The Lady a seat in Parliament, sparking conjecture about her ascending to the presidency in 2015. Last November, President Barack Obama walked barefoot at Yangon’s enormous gilded Schwedagon Pagoda, one of Buddhism’s most sacred places, and he delivered a speech at Yangon University, marking the first time a sitting U.S. president visited the country.
The people of Myanmar have reason to be optimistic, despite lingering distrust of the generals and ongoing violent ethnic uprisings and religious violence in remote regions, such as Kachin. Their positive outlook is bolstered by the dramatic changes that have swept the country in just a few years. In a matter of months, car showrooms began popping up like Starbucks after the price of a basic vehicle, akin to a Honda Accord, plummeted from more than $100,000 to around $20,000. The end of press censorship brought a flood of news journals, which people hawk on street corners and at traffic lights, and the lifting of the ban on foreign investment has encouraged a stream of international companies seeking opportunities in the emerging economy. Soon, Orient Express’s charming Yangon hotel The Governor’s Residence—a colonial gem in the dilapidated old capital—can expect some competition. Peninsula Hotels is planning to open a luxury hotel in the former Burma Railway station, and Shangri-La Hotels is building a residential complex with a hotel scheduled to open in 2017. Classic Journeys, which specializes in planning custom five-star tours, recently opened a Yangon office to serve the influx of Western tourists. In July, Orient Express launched a new ship, the Orcaella, and Viking River Cruises has announced that it will start cruising the Irrawaddy next year.
“What makes Myanmar so attractive is that life here has been behind a veil for so many years,” says Edward Piegza, president and founder of Classic Journeys, who compares the rise of Myanmar as a destination to that of Eastern Europe decades ago. “It’s a thrill to see the country emerge from the harsh realities of its recent past. But the really fascinating thing is that by having been cut off from so much of the world for so long, cultural identities and ways of life have gone untouched. It’s one of those increasingly rare places where a 21st-century traveler can come into authentic contact with a world that has stood still in time.”
Despite its recent progress, Myanmar is still a rather primitive and notoriously corrupt country in transition with a lacking infrastructure and other logistical challenges. Yet, it presents a rare opportunity for travelers to authentically experience a place that has been cut off from the world for decades before mass tourism and development change it forever. “We saw big changes in 2012, in tourism especially,” says Khun Aung Zaw Min, a native guide who spent a decade with Road to Mandalay before going freelance. He points out that Myanmar hosts about a million tourists annually compared to 20 million who visit neighboring Thailand each year. “Everyone agrees that the people are warm and friendly and that the country has stayed beautiful without the influx of Macdonald’s,” he says. “But, at the same time, we have to think about educating and training our human resources and building infrastructure. We have been abandoned by the world and people suffered for 50 years with no tourists, no foreign contact, and no access to other countries’ communications and transportation advances. We were left behind.”
While it’s easy to imagine a Four Seasons resort nestled among Bagan’s ancient ruins, for now, the Road to Mandalay, which was completely overhauled following damage incurred in 2008’s Cyclone Nargis, offers a rare five-star experience for exploring this less-travelled exotic land. “We have wanted to come to Myanmar for a few years, but we waited until we felt there was a comfort zone for safety,” explains Peg Mativi, CEO of Solutions Staffing, which is based in Columbus, Ohio. Mativi, who was sailing with a small group of family and friends has extensively traveled throughout Asia. “The landscape is much more beautiful than I had imagined, and while I knew there would be temples, I had no concept of the magnitude of the temples here.”
The Road to Mandalay was originally built as a reliable Rhine River cruiser in the 1960s. Following the recent renovation, the ship offers 43 cabins appointed in a subtle neutral palette with teak accents and minimalist contemporary Asian flair. Buffet lunches and a la carte dinners blending influences from both Eastern and Western cuisines are served in the intimate dining room with walls of windows on each side. The ship’s open-air top deck—a wide span of teak punctuated with a small swimming pool and shaded spaces for lounging and lunching—provides an ideal observation perch for watching life on the river by day and stargazing at night.
As Road to Mandalay sets sail and the spires of Bagan’s pagodas fade in the distance, the engine’s low hum lulls sunbathers by the pool. The ship glides past sandy shores where people eek out an existence with the ebb and flow of the river. Their primitive huts are easily moved to accommodate the ever-changing shoreline during floods and dry seasons. High waters deposit thick blankets of silt that fertilize the earth to sustain crops when the waters recede. The pace is slow and steady as the ship passes settlements, farmers, and fishermen, while river traffic bustles by. Myriad vessels pass by carrying everything from motorbikes to teak timber to bottled water in a fascinating, endless parade on the country’s aquatic super highway.
The pace of the river traffic quickens as we approach Mandalay, the last royal capital immortalized by Kipling in his 1892 poem Mandalay, from which the ship takes its name. Orient Express has built a docking station here, and Internet-starved guests eagerly sign on to the station’s Wi-Fi network before boarding small busses for sightseeing excursions to the city, a frenetic 40-minute drive away. A day of touring takes us to the reconstructed Royal Palace and the Maha Muni Pagoda where people pray before a fat Buddha and seek merits by applying gold leaf to the statue. At the 19th-century Shwe Nandaw Kyaung (Golden Palace) Monastery, we walk through the ornately carved teak apartments of King Mindon Min, who died in the building, which was subsequently moved from the Royal Palace. Kuthodaw Pagoda claims to house the world’s largest book—729 marble tablets inscribed on both sides each housed in a small white pagoda. The busy day of touring closes with a cold Myanmar beer on the top deck as the sunset streaks the sky with rose gold highlights glistening on the gilded roofs of Sagaing’s hundreds of pagodas across the river—a serene reminder of why this country is called The Golden Land.
Early in the morning, we venture across the road to the neighboring village of Shwe Kyet Yet, where the monks collect their daily alms in a procession through town. Villagers fill the monks’ bowls with rice and curries to sustain them through a long day of praying and studying Buddhist scriptures. This ancient ritual is a popular photo op for the tourists armed with long lenses jockeying for a clear angle. At the local market, blankets are spread on the ground and crude tables present an array of vegetables, fruits, meats, and household goods. One woman, her face painted white with the Thanaka paste that is commonly worn throughout the country, weighs areca nuts with a handheld scale. Her slow smile reveals a mouth of stained teeth resulting from the habitual chewing of the nuts along with tobacco, slaked lime or spices wrapped in betel leaves, a common addiction in South Asia. “In some ways, life here is the same as it was 1,000 years ago,” remarks a member of our group. I turn to survey the surroundings, and the fishmonger pulls out his cell phone to snap a picture of me.
Prices start at $2,520 per person for three-night cruises and $4,030 for 11 nights. Cruises on the Orcaella starts at $5,040 for seven nights and $5,610 for 11 nights. Fares include all onboard meals, excursions, transfers, and domestic flights.