Over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling described Burma (now Myanmar) as “quite unlike any country you know about,” immortalizing it in his poem “On the Road to Mandalay where the flyin’ fishes play an’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!”
Thirteen years ago, I was a passenger aboard the “Road to Mandalay”, Myanmar’s only luxurious river ship at the time. While visiting remote outposts along the Chindwin River, the gentle, smiling villagers and the country’s natural beauty seemed to transcend time to reveal a rich and glorious heritage.
Myanmar cast an irresistible spell on me, and I vowed to return one day to see how its charming people were getting on in their troubled world.
During my return visit this January, however, it was startling apparent, that what was once Southeast Asia’s most secretive and mysterious country is now rapidly opening up to the outside world. There were huge numbers of tour groups and at least 17 rivers cruise ships from which to choose.
My 50-passenger Orcaella (Burmese for “River Dolphin”) was launched In July 2013 as the luxurious new sister ship to the “The Road to Mandalay.” Both are owned and operated by Belmond, formerly known as the Orient-Express.
This time, the intimate eight-day journey between Bagan and Yangon was along the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar’s bustling main river route.
The Belmond Orcaella’s gracious staff welcomed aboard our 31 passengers, who had arrived from five continents. Throughout the voyage they meticulously attended to every imaginable detail, as there was one crew member for each passenger.
All 25 of the elegant outside cabins featured desk/dressing table and chair, walk-in wardrobe and drawers, spacious bathrooms, flat-screen satellite television with two DVD channels, floor-to-ceiling windows with sliding doors, and Juliet balconies with railings.
Three suites also had butler service, complimentary mini-bar of soft drinks, beer, local wine and spirits, complimentary laundry service, a one-hour spa treatment per person, and in-room Wi-Fi available. Two of the suites had a private balcony.
The ship’s decor throughout was a sleek, contemporary Burmese design with gleaming hardwoods, opulent fabrics, and locally commissioned art works.
At sunset, Hotel Manager Win Min, gracefully offered tai chi classes on the top observation deck which had a plunge pool surrounded by sun lounges. Morning yoga classes were on another popular outdoor deck.
My favorite public area was the indoor bar/lounge of rich brown and royal red furnishings which exuded a comfortable, clubby British feeling. Here, the ship’s staff held intriguing lectures about traditional Burmese life, government, and history.
A small fitness area was equipped with exercise machines and the spa offered a variety of rejuvenating treatments and massages. A resident medical doctor was available for even the most minor of needs.
While Belmond Orcaella’s gifted Chef Bansani specialized in Thai, Asian, and Mediterranean spa cuisine, she was exceptionally flexible in catering to each guest’s special requests and needs. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet-style and dinner was on an open sitting basis with no formal wear required. Complimentary house wines were served at lunch and dinner.
Each evening, after dinner or a performance by local entertainers, in our cabins we found a thoughtful gift that expressed an aspect of Burmese life
When disembarking the ship for a wide variety of daily shore excursions, it was often necessary to climb a steep dirt river bank, but there was always a staff member available to lend a helping hand.
By horse cart and ox cart, we experienced the rural lifestyle of villages and farms along the river. Other trishaw and walking expeditions meandered through the towns’ colonial buildings to arrive at noisy bustling markets.
At sunset, we looked down upon t thousands of ancient Buddhist stupas on the unforgettable Bagan plain. Another evening, everyone enjoyed the sunset from gondolas in wait at the U-Been Bridge, the country’s well-known landmark.
Cool wipes were always provided to clean our bare feet following visits to the many temples and monasteries, and back on ship, everyone’s shoes were promptly cleaned.
While an increasing number of cruise companies continue to launch new ships on Myanmar’s rivers, Belmond’s Orcaella and Road to Mandalay are top choices for those who seek the utmost in luxurious as well as socially responsible travel.
“Since 1997, the staffs of both ships have collected money from guests to build 24 schools. Our crews built 18 of these schools and we paid for the construction of the six others,” said ship Dr. Oo Ko. “We also continue to discuss with the local communities what are the essential things they need. Currently, we’re establishing a free clinic for medicines and glasses in one village.”