Beyond Mandalay by boat

LYNNE WHILEY
Last updated 12:11 21/11/2013
Myanmar Std
A Naga chief at Homalin.

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His bold, elaborate headwear and chestplate are crafted in ancient patterns, topped with a sequence of feathers, and he wears a finely woven red and green shawl draped from his shoulder. Yes, he nods, you can take photographs.

Then he whips out his smartphone to capture images of me and it's laughter all round before this Naga chief and his relatives welcome us to their village for a delicious meal washed down with home brew.

We're near Homalin, a gateway port to the vast teak forests and jade mines of Myanmar on the little-visited Chindwin River, on the first cruise of a new luxury vessel, the 50-passenger Orcaella.

A tributary of the mighty Irrawaddy River, the Chindwin winds below the Himalayan foothills in Myanmar's lush north-west, close to the Indian border. It's a river where whirlpools, rapids, and channels that shift each season can test the skills of experienced mariners.

We've boarded the ship at Mandalay and will end the journey at the dusty plains of Myanmar's dazzling ancient capital, Bagan, spending 11 languid nights in airconditioned indulgence in between.

Orcaella's owner, the Orient-Express group, is synonymous with cruising the Irrawaddy and brings a wealth of local knowledge to the 700-kilometre Chindwin adventure. We witness an intimate novitiation ceremony of young monks, visit temples, villages and markets and accompany locals to beautifully built pagodas dotted along the river.

Bankrupted by military dictators and shunned by the west until the Burmese army relinquished direct control in 2011, the country has emerged from isolation with an electric energy about it as citizens debate their democratic future.

Rich in natural gas, oil, gems and minerals, and with the capacity to feed its 60 million-plus people, Myanmar's economic prospects are up for grabs, and its powerhouse neighbours, China and India, as well as western companies, are investing.

Travellers pour in, keen to experience Myanmar's glittering, goldleaf heritage, distinctive cultures and modern contradictions, yet few explore beyond the established circuit of Yangon-Inle Lake-Bagan-Mandalay.

Beyond is where the humidity drops and temperatures cool, where a turn in the river reveals dramatic landscapes of gorges and forests, hillsides topped with shimmering stupas and temples, bamboo rafts carrying livestock and sampans fitted with two-strokes ferrying massive teak logs downriver. This far north, it's immersive travel amid the daily life of river folk, and a bit of a meditation in itself, which is perhaps apt in a Buddhist country.

ONBOARD

Purpose-built in Yangon, at 65 metres long and with a draft of just 1.4 metres, the Orcaella is easily the largest cruising vessel on the Chindwin, its passenger decks served by a central wooden stairwell and its interiors an elegant study in pared-back chic.

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Pale walls and wooden floors are a backdrop for showcasing elegant textiles and artworks; corridors are wide, ceilings high and air flow is excellent.

Where most Asian river cruising vessels have one top deck lounge area, the Orcaella's is astutely designed as a series of "rooms" that maximise privacy, space and airconditioned comfort.

The pool and sundeck sit behind the bridge, glass doors to the ship's staircase and bar. A gym is nearby. Glass doors from the bar open to a large open-air lounge. Beyond it, tucked at the stern, is an additional private area with just a handful of sun loungers.

Between these various top deck spaces and the ship's restaurant, spa, salon and kids' games area, 50 passengers can effortlessly disperse.

Only the drinks staff need know where you are.

All Orcaella's suites and cabins open to the river, have individually controlled airconditioning, floor-to-ceiling windows with sliding doors and Juliet balcony, Bulgari bathroom products and luxe linens.

There's just two prized balcony suites and two junior suites, yet my smaller state suite is still bigger than that of comparable cabins on European river cruise vessels, with a desk and chairs, lounge, walk-in wardrobe and a good-size en suite.

Free bottled water is restocked daily, and the morning alarm clock is breakfast delivered with seriously good espresso.

Being a maiden voyage, the Orcaella's restaurant staff are nervous, but the executive chef, Bansani Nawisamphan, with a CV that includes five-star Asian kitchens and Orient-Express hotels, calmly oversees a menu of modern western dishes, Burmese classics (without the heavy oil) and Thai-inspired fusion choices.

Red meat is sourced from Australia and New Zealand, much of the wine from Europe and the depth and quality of local fresh produce is showcased.

Myanmar's national dishes, including mohinga fish soup and green tea leaf salad are highlighted and there's an inventive menu of desserts and local fruits.

Upstairs, the bar doubles as a space for guest lectures, which on this cruise include talks about Burmese literature and practical naturopathy. Discussions range from the country's political landscape to birth control practices to Buddhism in home life to the dictatorship decades to the vast business interests of the military today.

Such diverse, witty, public conversation in a country where for decades the military persecuted people for speaking out is well received by passengers - a lively mix of Europeans, Americans, Australians and locals.

Some guests are new to river cruising, some new to the country, while others have previously sailed stretches of the Irrawaddy on Orcaella's sister ship, The Road to Mandalay.

ONSHORE

In upper Myanmar, 1000 kilometres from Yangon, tourists are rarely seen. Each time the Orcaella's captain drops anchor or noses the ship into the riverbank and ties up to a mango tree, we draw a polite, welcoming crowd.

Working a day ahead of the ship, a team of logistics staff travel by motorbike to towns upriver, leasing vehicles and hiring drivers to take passengers inland, advising local authorities of itineraries and keeping an eye on the weather.

We travel by truck, minibus, four-wheel-drive and tuk-tuk on roads that range from potholed tracks to new bitumen, and cross World War II-era Bailey bridges as well as far more modern ones. Accompanying us is the ship's doctor, who meets with villagers and attends to those in immediate need; behind us, at the docks, the chef and her team buy fresh produce.

A day after leaving Mandalay, we disembark at Monywa to visit the epic Thanboddhay Pagoda, a pastiche of templedom that dates to the 12th century and whose main stupa has hundreds of thousands of Buddha statues.

In a hall in the temple grounds, hundreds of nuns sit in rows, chanting. Further along a dusty road the Laykyun Sekkya - the Standing Buddha - comes into view, the centrepiece of a site filled with statues, bodhi trees planted in precise, symmetrical lines, and pagodas.

The following day at Moktaw, we walk with villagers across their paddocks to a monastery being circled by musicians and the families of boys about to undertake the rituals of shinbyu, becoming novice monks. The boys shiver as they wash, their shaved hair falling into cloths held by their parents. Later, freshly robed, they sprint around the village with pride.

A few days later, we dock at Sittaung, a one-teashop village where the poverty is plain to see.

Homes along the river range from bamboo make-do with coal and wood-fired cooking to solid, two-storey teak houses built in traditional styles, with diesel generators or solar panels as energy sources.

Down river, I've seen women and children hauling baskets of coal and, en route to an elephant camp, see women and children shifting rocks in road construction.

The disparity between life onboard and onshore is stark, yet no one asks for assistance or seeks to sell goods other than onion bhajees and fruit at portside markets and postcards in Homalin.

The hills behind Sittaung lead to the Indian border, and as an elderly man stretches his arm and points, an interpreter tells us the British retreated here, leaving as the Japanese occupied Myanmar in World War II.

The British arrived in 1824, ruling until 1948 when Myanmar gained independence, and in Homalin several sagging former British administration buildings, all old beams and wooden shutters, sit cheek by jowl with new construction.

The Orcaella's passengers dine one balmy evening in the forecourt of Mawlaik's golf club - an old building and grounds put to new use - said to be the oldest course in Myanmar and once despised as a gathering spot for military leaders and their cronies.

Inside the club house, the rules are still tacked to the wall; outside the ship's crew set up linen-covered tables dressed with candles and lanterns, before cooking on the spot. Not even a mosquito strays into the warm air here.

On another evening, while the ship is at anchor in the middle of the Chindwin, a Burmese businesswoman and community leader who is cruising with her children, speaks of the nation's journey "from superstition to constitution". In a country where the day of the week on which you are born, your birthdate and elements of the lunar calendar are said to influence character from birth, and where ancient "nat" spirits still have currency, it would seem the journey is a long one. Then she and I join other passengers and crew on the top deck to participate in a ritual too colourful, superstitious and ancient to resist - writing a wish on paper, attaching it to a long, firelit Shan balloon and sending the balloon into the night sky above the river.

The writer travelled courtesy of Orient-Express and Singapore Airlines.

FOUR MORE PLACES TO EXPLORE IN MYANMAR

LAKESIDE TRAINING HOTEL Inle Lake'sInthar Heritage House has just opened the Inthar Vocational Training Centre, training students in sustainable tourism and Myanmar's natural and cultural heritage, alongside every aspect of hospitality. A fully functioning hotel with graceful bungalow accommodation for guests, a portion of the tariff goes to the training school. The estate uses solar energy and has purpose-built wetlands for waste water management. Email intharheritage@gmail.com.

BIKE TO WINERY Rent a bike at Inle Lake's Nyang Shwe township and ride to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyard and Winery. Helmed by a French winemaker, the estate's reds and whites are stocked in several of Myanmar's top restaurants and winetasting on site in the late afternoon is popular. Hot springs are in easy cycling range. See redmountainestate.com.

SPIRIT FESTIVALS Nat spirit worship predates Buddhism in Myanmar. At key festivals, performers and musicians act out the desires and flaws of the human condition. North of Mandalay each August thousands flock to the Taung Byone Nat Pwe festival; Mount Popa, near Bagan, hosts one each December. See myanmars.net.

ARTS IN YANGON The country's contemporary art scene is buzzing. Next to Yangon's waterfront Strand Hotel is River Gallery II, where contemporary art lights up the walls. River Gallery is around the corner on 38th Street. It's a bigger space and hosts performance art, sculpture and installation as well as paintings. See rivergallerymyanmar.com.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Fly to Singapore and then to Yangon (about 2½ hrs). See Singaporeair.com. Orcaella passengers fly from Yangon to Mandalay to join the ship (included in the price), or can travel independently to Mandalay.

STAYING THERE The Governor's Residence in Yangon is owned by Orient-Express Ltd and has an airport transfer service. The boutique hotel is built in the grounds of a renovated colonial residence, and has a pool, open-air restaurant and bar. Rooms are from US$605 ($732.5) a night for two. See governorsresidence.com.

CRUISING THERE The Orcaella undertakes seven and 11-night cruises. An 11-night Discovering The Chindwin River cruise from Mandalay to Bagan is priced from about $7700 a person, twin share. Price includes domestic flights in Burma, all meals, shore tours and transfers. Seven-night cruises aboard the Orcaella include Irrawaddy River journeys from Yangon to Bagan (or the reverse) and Mandalay-Bhamo-Bagan itineraries, from about $6110 a person, twin share. Low water levels prevent cruises in the dry season, May-June.

WHAT TO BRING Crisp $US notes; modest, lightweight clothing; thongs and shoes that are easy to slip off at temples and monasteries.

MORE INFORMATION See orient-express.com.

- FFX Aus

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