Five wives and a boat
A voyage of wondrous discoveries along Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River
FLYING into Bagan from Yangon, I am fortunate to have a window seat. Across the vast, dusty-green plains are ancient temples and stupas, seemingly in their thousands, all arranged as tidily as haystacks.
Later that day my four companions and I will climb the narrow stone steps of one of the finest of these sacred stupas to watch the deepening sunset from an elevation that feels so enlightened we get giddy-headed and oddly emotional.
Bagan is our starting point for a seven-night Ayeyarwady River cruise south to Yangon aboard the 50-passenger Orcaella, which last year joined the longestablished Road to Mandalay as Orient-Express’s second cruiser in Myanmar.
Orcaella operates seven and 11-night seasonal itineraries along the Ayeyarwady and the northerly Chindwin rivers; the latter, with less-visited towns and villages, is recommended as just the shot for repeat visitors.
For all options, joining passengers are flown to departure points from Yangon, with the flight and transfers included in the cruise fare. It is all exceptionally streamlined and well-organised in an emerging destination where tourism is a fledgling and sometimes unmanageable thing and English not yet widely spoken.
Once aboard the snub-nosed Orcaella — named for a species of river dolphin — it’s clear this new fourdecked vessel has been most cleverly designed. There are deluxe cabins, staterooms and suites over two levels; all configurations are well-designed chambers with good storage, powerful rainshowers and Bulgari greentea toiletries. At night, turn-down gifts appear as if popped on pillows by passing fairies — a tiny owl made from petrified wood; a packet of sheets of hand-beaten gold leaf; a silken fan; a booklet detailing a ‘‘five-minute meditation method for quick deliverance from all suffering’’; and, to the potential detriment of dentistry, a circular wooden hand and foot massage device that looks like a chocolate in the half-light.
Orcaella’s dining and leisure facilities are on the upper two decks, and there’s an open sun area, small pool and lovely little day spa curtained into several treatment areas; after thorough rose-oil massages, passengers are served steaming ginger tea in lacquered cups.
The velvet-and-chrome lounge bar could have been lifted from a chic nightclub, waitstaff are kitted up in perky red uniforms, and sweeping staircases between decks make for grand swishing about. It is all very light and bright, with pale timbers, polished surfaces and substantial artworks in the public areas.
With a few exceptions, the staff, under the charge of amiable hotel manager Win Min, are young Burmese. Mingarlaba! they greet us day and night. ‘‘Hello! Wel- come!’’ We return each day from shore visits to the embrace of Orcaella and the prospect of ice-cold towels rolled like offerings; shot glasses of strawberry smoothie, watermelon fizz and lychee juice; and the prompt offer of shoe removal and cleaning.
Everyone’s favourite staff member is executive chef Bansani (Ban) Nawisamphan from Thailand who produces extraordinary meals, particularly her crunchy and spice-enlivened salads and tofu hotpots on the luncheon buffet table with, say, melon and sago pudding and lemony marshmallows to follow.
There’s truffled mayonnaise with the breakfast boiled eggs and an abundance of big prawns from clear, cold lakes to the north; one day Ban runs a convivial cooking class in which we learn the secrets of lemongrass-scented Burmese fish soup and pennyworth salad.
We encounter Ban ashore at almost every stop with her retinue of kitchen helpers headed in search of the best produce, from the j uiciest limes to the springiest vegetables.
She carries a tremendous cane basket, typically topped up with dragonfruit, as pink and twirly as Christmas decorations, mandarins as tiny as squashes, and supplies of okra, which market Ban p the petals on t of segments w
Our guide leads our gro courtesy; I am tial to be argu as his ‘‘senior w family outing
Orcaella’s and wear ma