River of time
The wonder of a journey down the Ayeyarwady in Myanmar
I’LL go one better than Kipling, at least. He wrote Mandalay (‘‘On the road to Mandalay . . . sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells’’) after returning from India in 1890 and a brief, unscheduled stop in what was then Burma, where he fell in love with the country ‘‘with the blind favouritism born of first impression’’.
For all the lyrical yearning of his paean to Eastern exoticism, however, he never actually troubled Mandalay with his presence. I, by contrast, travelled with Orient-Express from Bagan, at the heart of the country, to Mandalay, after 180km and three days’ cruising on one of Asia’s great rivers, the Ayeyarwady (or the Irrawaddy as it was formerly, and is still more widely, known).
Orient-Express can organise a trip that starts with time in Yangon, the old capital, before flying you to Bagan, and it’s an add-on I highly recommend. It’s one of travel’s hoariest cliches to suggest a place hasn’t changed in 50 years — you arrive, and, inevitably, the cliche is revealed as a chimera. Not in Yangon — not, indeed, in Myanmar, where the cliche is endlessly and delightfully reiterated. This is the Asia of Somerset Maugham — steamy, romantic, beguiling, mysterious, with charm aplenty and timeless vignettes to spare.
But Yangon is for another day; Orient-Express’s river cruiser The Road to Mandalay departs from Bagan, which is a place I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more about. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy have welcomed visitors to Myanmar since May last year, and when the visitors arrive in force — and the numbers are rising fast — it will be Bagan to which they swarm.
Why? Because the temples here, simply put, are one of the world’s great sights, a sight to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat.
They are not Myanmar’s biggest temples, nor the most laden with gold and precious stones, but collectively they are the most beautiful, built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, when their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. Some 2230 of the original 4450 temples sur- vive, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit.
At dawn on our second day in Bagan, we rise with the sun over the temple’s vast site in a hot-air balloon, the sky lightening pink in the east to reveal a verdant plain, partly covered in stands of palm and tamarind.
Hundreds of domes and spires pierce the green canopy, beautiful, other-worldly silhouettes in the shimmering dawn haze. The air is dewy fresh, mist mingling with the smoke of fires from scattered villages. In the far distance the faint outlines of distant mountains frame the great sweep of the Ayeyarwady, and on all sides the sun begins to burnish the golden stone of countless temples amid the deep green patchwork of bush, jungle and fields.
On another day we explore the site by bicycle, wandering at will into dim, cave-like temples where