River road through Myanmar
Gentle people, charming smiles, ancient ruins hint of riches slowly revealed
by Judy M. Zimmerman
“I love you. I love you very much. I will never forget you,” said Daw May Lwin Zin, headmistress of the village school of Kindat, Burma (or “Myanmar” as it is now known). Before we parted, she showered me with gifts of limes, pomelos, and green jade earrings.
We strolled arm in arm down the main, muddy thoroughfare of Kindat, as the esteemed headmistress proudly announced to curious on?lookers in their houses on stilts that I was the representative of the Road to Mandalay who had just presented the school with much?needed school supplies.
“We ask ahead of time what is needed; we do not give money,” said crew member Terry Kyaw Nyunt, who had managed the school fund for eight years. “For example, we bought a multi-media system for a school in Bagan with money donated by the passengers and crew.”
Our Road to Mandalay river cruiser visited many remote villages along the Ayeyarwady River, immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his poem Mandalay, when he described Burma as “quite unlike any land you know about.”
What was once Southeast Asia’s most secretive and mysterious country is now slowly opening up to the outside world to reveal a rich and glorious cultural heritage, breathtaking natural beauty, and people who have an endearing genuine charm.
My journey in Myanmar began with a tour of Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Our group stayed at the Orient-Express owned Governor’s Residence, an imposing teak mansion set in a quiet residential area within walking distance of the Shwedagon Pagoda. One of the most sacred Buddhist temples in the world, a golden spire dominates this religious fairyland and everything around it. It is truly a sight that appears, in the words of Somerset Maugham, “like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.”
Nearby, the shops of the huge, enclosed Scott’s Market were well worth a serious look at the rubies, sapphires, jade and various beautiful Burmese works of art, all wonderful values.
The following morning we boarded a plane for the short flight to Mandalay, a huge kind of Oriental bazaar of artists and craftspeople at work. Some market stalls were piled high with sticks from the thanaka tree, which young women and children grind into a smooth sandalwood paste and apply to their faces as beauty marks and protection from the sun.
The luxurious 108-passenger Road to Mandalay was transported to Myanmar from Europe in 1995. Local craftsmen added elegant decorations and fittings such as woven cane furniture, Burmese antiques, and traditional motifs carvings that reflect a colonial ambiance. Each spacious cabin enjoys a view.
Recent extensive refurbishment includes a new gym, health and beauty center, and main restaurant which offers both Asian and European-style menus.
The magic charm of Burma weaves its spell as something new appears around every bend
Times stands still. It feels we are gliding through a secret journey into a hidden world.
Entire villages turn out to greet us. Excited children run along the riverbanks, waving and shouting their welcomes. Creaking ox carts cultivate fields, leaving trailing clouds of dust. Fishermen cast their nets. Bright?eyed young girls with long longyi cloths hugging their hips linger for awhile and smile while balancing baskets on their heads. Ancient temples shrouded in mists, majestic white and gold pagodas illuminated in the sunset, teak forests, virgin jungles and snow capped mountains, all are part of the enticing adventure.
But after visiting each fascinating village, it is always a welcome respite to return to the ship for a plunge into the pool or a cool, thirst?quenching drink on the top deck’s canopied bar.
During the day, on board cultural lectures and discussions help us to better understand the culture of Myanmar. Many passengers also book a soothing massage or body treatment.
Each evening a pianist entertains at a bar on the main deck. Afterwards, there are colorful performances by local Burmese dancers, puppeteers and acrobats as well as television in house movies.
“We employ about 120 Burmese staff (on the ship and on shore),” said Tom Evers Swindell, Orient Express Regional Director for Asia, “Our fantastic staff are paid in the top bracket of pay scale in the tourist industry in Burma and are very loyal to the company. The Road to Mandalay is in no way linked to the government, and is 100% foreign-owned.”
Our tranquil river journey ended in eerie old Bagan (formerly Pagan) where the mysterious ruins of more than 2,000 temples dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Bagan, once the ancient center of a glorious kingdom, is an inspiring scene at sunset.
As we said our good-byes, tears glistened in the eyes of two shy staff members. In respectful prayer positions, they murmured to me, “We will miss you always.”
Should you visit Myanmar? Whether informed tourism helps or hinders the restoration of human rights in Myanmar is an on?going debate, but “the local Burmese people with whom we come into contact say they do not want to see an end to tourism in Burma,” said Pippa Isbell, spokesperson for Orient-Express. “The company believes that this interaction between ordinary people can be a catalyst for long-term social change.”
As for me, Burma has cast an irresistible spell. I will return soon to see how these friendly people are getting on in a world that is not so friendly as they are.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
- www.orient-express.com, 800-524-2420, Ask for the “Great Journeys of the Orient-Express” brochure.
- Cost includes flights within Myanmar, transfers and scheduled sightseeing.