River of time

The won­der of a jour­ney down the Aye­yarwady in Myan­mar

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - TIM JEPSON

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

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