Taking a five-star river cruise from Yangon along the Ayeyarwady River is the best way to explore Myanmar (formerly Burma), one of the most secretive parts of Asia
It was not mere drizzle but a proper tropical downpour, which bounced off the priceless white marble ground and soaked my feet and trousers as thoroughly as it did the elegant longyi worn by my Burmese guide, Gi-Gi. I was 100 metres above the benign shambles that is Yangon, capital city of Myanmar, exploring the miracle that is the Shwedagon Pagoda, the gold-domed wonder of the world, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites for the past 2,500 years since it was constructed to enshrine the Buddha’s relics (eight hairs of his head by all accounts).
The torrential rain, for which I was so grateful, served two purposes – it helped make the soaring temperatures more manageable (though the humidity was still a problem) and, more importantly, it kept all but the most devoted visitors away. If you are paying homage to one of the great monuments of the world, you do not want to share it with thousands of other tourists.
Not that this is a major problem in Myanmar (the former Burma) at present. Some of the actions of the country’s military regime virtually obliterated the country from the tourism map in recent years, which, politics aside, is a huge shame.
You will notice the scarcity of visitors as soon as you arrive and check in to your hotel. It is almost as though Myanmar has been asleep for the past 50 years or so since the British moved out after the Second World War. It is only relatively recently that Myanmar has slowly opened up to the outside world. Mind you, it is by no means the easiest place to visit. The rules and regulations and the need for everyone to go through the sometimes trying process of obtaining a visa do little to aid the efforts of the country’s tourism authorities, keen to persuade more westerners to visit.
The Strand hotel, a beautifully renovated colonial-style building just across from the docks, was my haven for the night. It was built in 1901 when Yangon (then Rangoon) was one of the major gems of what was then British India. It was described in a guidebook of the period as “the finest hostelry east of Suez” and was “patronised by royalty, nobility and distinguished personages”.
I would not argue, particularly since a major refurbishment returned the hotel to its former glory. Though how many distinguished personages stay there these days may be open to debate. Most of my fellow guests were simply staying the night before flying on to Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, from where the real adventure was to start, a journey up the Ayeyarwady river.
I survive the Air Mandalay flight, which seems to operate when the pilot fancies taking off rather than to any particular timetable, and feel relief as I board the Road to Mandalay, a former Rhine cruiser operated by Orient-Express, the company best known for its luxury trains in Europe and Asia, not to mention a portfolio of smart hotels. There are worse, much worse, ways to penetrate the northernmost reaches of the river than on this five-star riverboat.
I just have time to get my bearings and find the bar, restaurant and sun deck, with its teak fixtures and furnishings, elegant awnings, rattan chairs and overstuffed sofas, before we have left Mandalay and dropped anchor off our first port of call, the village of Mingun. The entire village has turned out to greet us as we make our way along the dirt path that serves as the main road to view the biggest brick-built pagoda in the world. Smiling children, small boys in the rich ruby reds of novice monks and curious adults accompany us to see what is said to be the largest un-cracked bell in the world. I make a donation to the friendly nun who seems to be its keeper and get to ring it – I get a Buddhist blessing into the bargain.
It is not for a couple of days that we start to come across small villages where hardly a “trouser-man” (the local term for Europeans) has been seen. We visit the small town of Katha, where trishaws are the only high-tech transport to be seen. They are the perfect way to see the sites. The bustling market sells everything from locally-produced vegetables and dried fish (the staple diet when they are transformed into the favourite local delicacy, a particularly greasy though fairly mild curry) to pots and pans made from recycled tin cans.
Remarkably, there is even a small and rarely-used railway station, yet another relic of British rule, from where we take a trip on board an antique train to the forest station of Naba. The villagers offer flowers to the women in our party while the ever-present military keep a watchful eye on proceedings.
The ship anchors off the island of Shwe Paw and we all troop ashore, past the solidly-built teak houses on stilts from which young women, their faces decorated with “thanaka”, an ochre-coloured paste, peep shyly at us, to visit the pagoda (there are thousands to be seen in this area) to pay our respects to the monks and check on progress at the local school, partly supported by donations from foreign tourists.
Eventually we reach our ultimate goal, the town of Bhamo, a mere 50 miles from the Chinese border in the foothills of Yunnan, which can be seen clearly to the east. We bounce along for an hour or so in the back of a truck, past paddy fields where oxen are the main power source and where poisonous snakes lie in wait for the unwary.
This, for the time being at least, is the only civilised way to see one of the last remaining barely-discovered places on earth.