Five wives and a boat

A voy­age of won­drous dis­cov­er­ies along Myan­mar’s Aye­yarwady River

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

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

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